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THE MAD TRAPPER : THE STORY
He led authorities on the longest manhunt in Canadian history, fleeing across frozen tundra and scaling a mountain in blizzard conditions. Albert Johnson played the leading role in a seven-week game of cat-and-mouse that captivated a nation. The story of The Mad Trapper of Rat River is a legendary Canadian mystery that still begs to be solved.
The entire tale unfolds during the alarming sub-zero temperatures of the mid-winter darkness above the Arctic Circle. In 1931, an unfamiliar man by the name of Albert Johnson spontaneously arrives in Fort McPherson, building a small cabin on the banks of the Rat River, near the Mackenzie River delta. In December of that same year, members of Aklavik's detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were obliged to question Albert Johnson as a result of a formal complaint filed by local trappers. Someone was tampering with traps, and it wasn't long before the antisocial newcomer was identified as the likely suspect.
Constable Alfred King and Special Constable Joe Bernard trudged out to Johnson's forlorn cabin to discuss the allegations against him. It was reported that Johnson refused to acknowledge the presence of the inquiring RCMP. It was decided that returning to Aklavik for a search warrant was the next step in the investigation.
Constables King and Bernard returned two days later with two additional RCMP officers and a civilian deputy. Johnson again refused to answer any questions. In due course, Constable King decided to implement the warrant and force the cabin's door. During the attempt to gain entry, Johnson shot King through the wooden door. A short firefight broke out before the team of RCMP managed to return Constable King to Aklavik, where he was able to recover fully from his gunshot wound.
Now dubbed an attempted murderer, it was crucial that RCMP bring Johnson into custody. Not willing to accept defeat again, the RCMP formed a posse that included nine men, 42 dogs and nine kilograms of dynamite. The dynamite was brought along in case the use of excessive force was needed to blast Johnson out of hiding. As anticipated, the explosives were a necessary course of action. After the explosion collapsed the rustic cabin Johnson called home, the men rushed in. Johnson opened fire from a foxhole he had tunneled under the building. Fortunately, no one was wounded, however after a 15 hour standoff in the 40-below weather the posse once again retreated to Aklavik for further commands. Albert Johnson was left behind; a homeless felon on the lam.
Carrying a rifle and little else, Johnson fled into the glacial wilderness; with temperatures dipping into the range of -40 to -60 degrees Celsius. Delayed by continual blizzard-like conditions, the posse resumed the search for the fugitive on January 14th, 1932. Live daily CBC radio reports tracked the massive RCMP manhunt for captivated listeners across North America. They finally caught up to Johnson on January 30th, surrounding him at the bottom of a cliff. In the ensuing firefight, Johnson shot and killed Constable Edgar Millen. The troops remained in position, yet somehow Johnson managed to scale the cliff and escape the RCMP once again.
It was after this third attempt to capture Johnson that the authorities recognized the need for enlisting local Inuit and Gwich'in for help with both tracking and navigation. It was apparent that Johnson was fleeing towards the Yukon. Accordingly, the RCMP had blocked the only two passes over the local Richardson Mountains. These human barriers did nothing to slow Johnson down. An Inuit trapper reported odd tracks on the far side of the mountains. It was determined that Johnson had successfully climbed a 7,000 foot peak and once again vanished.
In desperation, the RCMP hired famed pioneer bush pilot, Wop May, to join the manhunt with his ski equipped aircraft. On February 14th, May discovered the strategy Johnson had been using to evade his followers, when he noticed a set of footprints leading off the center of the Eagle River to the bank. It appeared that Johnson had been following caribou tracks in the middle of the river. Walking in their tracks hid his own footprints, and allowed him to travel quickly on the trampled-down snow without having to use his heavy snowshoes. He only left the trail at night to make camp on the river bank, which was uncovered by the shrewd pilot. The pilot reported his findings and the RCMP gave chase up the river, eventually locating Johnson on February 17th.
The team rounded a bend in the river to find Johnson only a few hundred yards in front of them. Johnson attempted to run for the bank, without his snowshoes on, he wasn't able to navigate through the harsh snow. A final firefight broke out between Canada's most wanted man and the authorities desperate to bring him to justice. Staff Sergeant Hersey was seriously wounded during the shoot out. The notorious Albert Johnson was shot nine times before releasing to death. Staff Sergeant Hersey was rushed by air to a local hospital where swift medical attention saved his life.
An examination of Johnson's body yielded over two thousand dollars in both American and Canadian currency, gold and a small collection of survival equipment. During the entire pursuit, no one had heard Johnson say a single word. The true identity of Albert Johnson remains a mystery of epic proportion.
This extraordinary story describes the most incredible manhunt of the twentieth century; it was a forty-eight-day odyssey across the harshest terrain in the world. Johnson seemed superhuman in his ability to evade capture; the chase stretched for hundreds of miles through the northernmost extension of the Canadian Rockies.
Chances are the world will never see another chase like this one!