Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Whitehorse Star

Top left - Albert Johnson, The Mad Trapper of Rat River - Yukon Archives photo Top right - Aklavik Grave of the Mad Trapper - The sign reads: Albert Johnson arrived in Ross River August 21, 1927. Complaints of local trappers brought the RCMP on him. He shot two officers and became a fugitive of the law. With howling huskies, dangerous trails, frozen nights, the posse finally caught up with him. He was killed up the Eagle River Feb. 17, 1932. Photo by Vince Fedoroff

A most bizarre case The Mad Trapper of Rat River

The aircraft not only ferried supplies to the pursuit parties, but was instrumental in spotting the fugitive's trail from the air.

By Whitehorse Star on February 17, 1932

It is a strange feeling to stand by the grave of a man who was a fugitive in life and is a legend in death.

The place is Aklavik, a tiny village in the Mackenzie River Delta in the northwest corner of Canada's Northwest Territories and the man called himself Albert Johnson. He was dubbed "the mad trapper of Rat River" and was the fugitive in the most bizarre and dramatic manhunt in Canada's history.

To this day, little light has been shed on the real identity of the strange man who was finally gunned down in the mid-winter snows in Eagle River, Yukon on February 17, 1932.

To appreciate the degree of superhuman endurance, tenacity, cunning, savagery, desperation, mystery, ingenuity and suspense associated with the death of Albert Johnson, the reader must first appreciate the circumstances and conditions under which the events took place.

This is the great Mackenzie River Valley and the entire drama was played out in the killing sub-zero temperatures of the mid-winter darkness above the Arctic Circle.

For 48 days, a lone man withstood all attempts of a combined force of Royal Canadian Mounted Police assisted by Indian and white trappers to apprehend him for wounding a police officer.

The chase encompassed 240 kms. While Johnson travelled on snowshoes and broke trail, his pursuers used dog teams and were further aided by an aircraft and radio communication.

The forest and tundra of Arctic Canada is one of the most demanding environments on earth. This is the homeland of the Loucheux Indian.

The forest dwelling Loucheux, whose livelihood depends almost entirely on hunting, fishing and trapping, are acknowledged to be the most skilled hunters in the Arctic forests.

The inherent dangers associated with a semi-nomadic existence in this remote and demanding Arctic environment make such high levels of skill tantamount to survival.

A white man, to survive in the high Arctic forests, had to be able bodied, keen of mind and experienced in the ways of wilderness living.

Albert Johnson was admirably well suited for the rigorous life of the high north trapper and prospector.

Johnson appeared in the Fort McPherson area on the Peel River around 1931. The taciturn stranger with the cold pale-blue eyes was soon regarded as an unsociable loner who preferred his own company and the solitude of a cabin or bush camp.

In the sparsely populated river valleys of Canada's Arctic, this was strange and unseemly behavior where friendly and social interchange was the basic fabric of life.

The cold-eyed stranger's surly silence in this already silent and lonely land made people uneasy.

A Mountie was obliged to question Johnson as a result of a formal complaint lodged against him by two Loucheux trappers. It was ascertained that Johnson refused to acknowledge or say a single word when the Mountie visited his lonely cabin on Rat River.

When the same officer returned with a search warrant several days later, Johnson, still without saying a word, shot and seriously wounded the constable.

On the third occasion, a heavily armed posse laid siege to his cabin for three days. They even used dynamite to blow the roof off and dislodge the trapper from his cabin but to no avail. He fired round for round and for the third time forced his attackers to retire for further supplies and to plan a subsequent assault.

Radio reports of the confrontation between the taciturn trapper and the famed mounted police force of Canada's Arctic had reached the outside world and had fired up the interest of North Americans.

It has been stated that the daily reports of the chase and periodic shoot-outs hastened the public acceptance of radio as a medium for blow-by-blow news coverage.

When a larger and better equipped posse was again ready to confront Johnson, it was learned he had abandoned his damaged cabin at Rat River. He had disappeared on foot into the frigid white world of the vast Mackenzie River Valley.

The wilderness trained Mounties, the Loucheux and white trappers live by sight, sound and a sixth sense, they interpret what they see and hear. Even the seemingly indefatigable and super-elusive Albert Johnson must leave tracks in the winter snows.

A week passed before the Mounties found a faint trace of the trapper's trail and resumed pursuit.

He was found, a gun battle ensued and a Mountie was shot dead by Johnson. He then scaled an ice covered canyon wall and disappeared once more into the twilight of the Arctic wilderness.

It was around this time that the famed pioneer bush pilot, Wop May, joined the manhunt with his ski equipped aircraft.

The aircraft not only ferried supplies to the pursuit parties, but was instrumental in spotting the fugitive's trail from the air.

Johnson, meanwhile, had somehow managed to cross the forbidding Richardson Mountain Range using a caribou herd and a blizzard to obliterate his trail.

It was a fantastic feat for a man travelling alone and on foot and the crowning proof of the man's amazing stamina and endurance.

In spite of the odds against him, it was almost by accident that he was encountered, surrounded and eventually shot to death on the Eagle River, 40 days after the initial confrontation on the Rat River.

Defiant to the last, he seriously wounded yet another Mountie before he died.

Although called upon to surrender a score of times by the law officers, Johnson was never heard to utter a single word during the almost seven weeks of siege, pursuit and battle.

Who was he really? ...and where did he come from?

He was a silent man, in a lonely land.

The rifles and snowshoes of the "mad trapper of Rat River" remain on display at the RCMP Museum in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Comments (7)

Up 0 Down 1

Kozman on Nov 21, 2017 at 7:56 pm

Yes, Death Hunt does tell the story, but Hollywoodish. Trapper Johnson, incredible man.

Up 2 Down 1

John on Jul 7, 2017 at 1:05 pm

Watch "Death Hunt" with Charles Bronson.
Based on the Story of Albert Johnson

Up 1 Down 0

Jeanne Pascal on May 2, 2017 at 6:32 pm

Very interesting tale of survival. I just spent several days looking at photos of the Canol road and the Dempster Highway: very isolated places even now. Nelson (Johnson) did this all on foot in mid winter in the late 1920s. His described demeanor made me wonder if he was running from the law, and his initial reaction to the Mounties who just wanted to talk about trapping (no one could prove he sprung the traps), insured he would be hunted. When he shot the constable, he was doomed. Such a tragic drama, and a continuing mystery. Fascinating lore of the Canadian north.

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LtCol Ridge Marriott on Mar 5, 2017 at 8:36 pm

Albert Johnson, the name is part of RCMP history. As a retired US Army Officer and a former Special Agent with US Immigration, I find his story at once intriguing and yet sadly fascinating. Mr. Lalonde may be closest to a fitting
epitaph. As a law enforcement officer, I cannot condone Johnson's actions-but it does seem that his initial brush with the law could have been settled as a misdemeanor-at least upon conviction. I think that he was a loner and maybe was seeking solitude away from civilization, resenting any intrusion to the point of resisting cooperation with authorities to the point of violence.
What is remarkable is the long and continued struggle to escape successfully through really some of the toughest country in North America. That-and no positive identification ever being found or determined. This just deepens the mystery surrounding Canada's longest manhunt, which has resulted in no one really knowing who he was or his origin.
An interesting page of history from the Canadian Northwest somewhat reminiscent of the tales of Jack London.

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Richard lalonde on Jan 21, 2017 at 5:06 pm

Coming from a emotionally broken home, saved by uncle who was a trapper. I grew up fascinated by this piece of history. I read everything on it I possibly could. My uncle said I idolized a murder. I did not then or now. I rather tried to understand where and how he got his distrust for his fellow man. Being a trapper myself and spending sometimes 20 hrs a day and lots at night at very cold temps. After 55 yrs and thousands of miles alone with my thoughts and life's experiences. I think he was almost provoked to the final outcome. He remained silent at the first confrontation at his cabin door. The officers choice of words and tone could have set him off. Surely we can all sympathize with that. A cold blooded murderer would have fired twice and finished him off. He chose to run away, to escape mankind that he distrusted at that point in his life. He probably ran from human life before and it worked. Their are so many hints that he just wanted to be left alone. Who in their life has not felt the same way at some point in time. After all, why did he try to wave the tracking plane off? Why did he not shoot at such a slow moving plane? Part of me understands. I see a wounded soul trying to heal the only way he knew how. I do not condone his killing, but I do admire his solitary feats of strength and determination under such harsh conditions. They say you bury a bad man face down so he can see where he is going. I think it fitting somehow that his posterior was facing the wrath of mankind. Thank you for letting me share a 55 year old opinion. Rest in piece to troubled soul.

Up 3 Down 1

Nora Lande on Jan 8, 2017 at 2:04 pm

Interesting story to say the least. I couldn't help but wonder where Albert came from, could he have been mute. Were there no papers indicating his history? The photo looked like he was quite young. He was obviously skilled in arctic survival and shooting.

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Bruce on Apr 27, 2016 at 8:46 pm

Trapper Johnson was killed by Canadian Signal Corps personnel sworn in as special constables. Not by full time members of the R.C.M.P. This statment is supported by documentation at the Signal Corps Museum at C.F.B. Kingston Ontario.

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