The remains of *Johnson’s* cabin with only one wall standing  after the RCMP dynamited it. When they approached to pick up his body, he leapt up from a trench he had dug in the floor and fired at them. After a day long shooting standoff, the mounties retreated.

The remains of *Johnson’s* cabin with only one wall standing after the RCMP dynamited it. When they approached to pick up his body, he leapt up from a trench he had dug in the floor and fired at them. After a day long shooting standoff, the Mounties retreated and Johnson took off into the wilderness
Photo Credit: wikimedia

Canada history: Feb 17, 1932: The end and beginning of the mystery of the Mad Trapper

It is one of the many enduring legends and mysteries of Canada’s far northern frontiers.

Who was this man? They didn’t know then, and they still don’t know now, and probably never will.

The story begins in summer of 1931 when a stranger about age 35, shows up in the tiny community of Fort McPherson in Northwest territores.  Any stranger arriving attracts a little attention and the local RCMP chatted with him, but found him to be less than forthcoming about who he was, why he had come to this remote region, and what his intentions were.

He was soon viewed as a rather unfriendly loner.  This itself was unusual in a place where because of the isolation, dangers, and hardships of life in the wilderness, friendliness  and helpfulness was the norm.

The name Albert Johnson was given, but there was no indication that was true.

What is possibly the only photo of Albert Johnson alive.

He seemed to have enough money paying cash for supplies and he then moved on to the Rat River where he built a small cabin, but without having obtained a trapping licence which was also deemed very odd for someone moving into the bush.

In December, the local Mounties in in the hamlet of Aklavik heard complaints of someone taking animals from native traplines, and went to investigate the stranger who called himself Albert Johnson.

This in itself was no small effort for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers.

In temperatures around -40, two constables used dog sleds to travel the almost 100km to Johnson’s cabin, but when they got there he refused to answer the door or even talk to them at all.   After about an hour trying to get him to respond, they were frustrated and freezing. They left,but with the intention of returning with a search warrant, accompanied by two more Mounties and a civilian.

After the long trek back to base, the repeated the journey in the bitter cold of the frigid Arctic territories a couple of days later.

This time, when he refused to talk, they tried to force the door

Johnson’s response was a bullet fired through the door severely wounding one of the police officers. They retreated after a few shots, taking the wounded man in desperate rush to get the officer back to medical attention in Aklavik. It was extremely fortunate fo the officer that the bullet had entered and exited his upper chest without hitting major organs, and he soon recovered.

Now the episode had become serious

From a simple case of making inquiries about tampering with traplines, it had now escalated into an armed assault and attempted murder of a police officer. The Mounties now returned in force with nine men, and several kilos of dynamite to blast Johnson out.  But Johnson had apparently always anticipated problems and his cabin was reinforced, and he had gunports through the walls.

They tried to coax him out, but gunfire was his response. A shooting battle ensued but with no injuries and no resolution, the Mounties decided it was time to end this situation.
After carefully thawing out their frozen dynamite, they began tossing it at the cabin with little effect. Finally with several sticks tied together they tossed the explosive into a damaged section and bles the cabin apart.

Thinking they’d find Johnson in little pieces, they approached but were shocked by gunfire coming from within the cabin.

Johnson had dug himself a bunker into the floor, apparently for just such an occasion and had miraculously survived the huge blast.

Approximate route of Johnson A) cabin on Rat River, B() where Cst Millen was shot and killed, C) Eagle River Yukon where Johnson was killed.
Approximate route of Johnson A) cabin on Rat River, B() where Cst Millen was shot and killed, C) Eagle River Yukon where Johnson was killed in an epic chase through the Arctic wilderness that captivated radio audiences around the world © google

A 15 hour shootout ensued in the temperatures which hovered around -40C. Now lacking food, water and ammunition, and slowly freezing in the bitter weather, the posse retreated to Aklavik for reinforcments and to re-arm.

Word of the high Arctic shootout began reaching the world by radio.

When the police returned on January 14th, they found Johnson had taken off and so began one of the world’s most epic pursuits through the wilderness in some of the harshest conditions in the world.

Superhuman effort

Johnson tramped on foot for dozens of miles in deep snow for about two weeks surviving the dangers and the windy, bitter cold. He couldn’t hunt with his rifle as the noise would give him away, leading one to wonder how he survived. Although amazingly wily, the dog teams and trackers caught up with him on January 30th.

Another gun battle ensued during which Johnson killed one of the Mounties, Cst. Millen.

The cairn commemorating RCMP Constable Millen, shot by Johnson in January 1931 is located on Millen Creek, a tributary stream of the Rat River in the Northwest Territories. A simple 3-sided pyramid of weathered logs sits in a clearing fringed by black spruce in a narrow stream cut valley overhung by willow and alder. It is a remote place, 40 kilometres northwest of Fort McPherson, the nearest community. The surrounding hills rise a hundred metres above the cairn.
The cairn commemorating RCMP Constable Millen, shot by Johnson in January 1931 is located on Millen Creek, a tributary stream of the Rat River in the Northwest Territories. A simple 3-sided pyramid of weathered logs sits in a clearing fringed by black spruce in a narrow stream cut valley overhung by willow and alder. It is a remote place, 40 kilometres northwest of Fort McPherson, the nearest community. The surrounding hills rise a hundred metres above the cairn. ©  Sgt. M. Carpenter/RCMP

As the story dragged on it now became an international thriller intriguing radio audiences everywhere as they followed the manhunt for the man now being called “theMad trapper of Rat River”.

After the shootout, Johnson was on the move toward the Yukon, and making a superhuman effort through the woods, sometimes wearing his snowshoes backwards to fool the trackers, sometimes doubling back on his trail.

Everyone in the north was now on the lookout for him. Johnson still of course couldn’t use his gun or even light fires to dry his clothes as either would give him away.

He continued to forge dozens of kilometers a day through heavy snow, blizzards and an unbelievable cold.

Knowing the Mounties would block the only two passes over the Richardson mountains, Johnson once again did the impossible.

He had to get over the mountains and while the mounties took cover and waiting in another raging blizzard, Johnson somehow managed to scale a a steep 2,100 metre ice covered mountainside.

Experts said the feat would be extremely difficult in good weather and only if one had proper climbing gear. How Johnsom managed is just one more aspect to his mystery and the legend.

The tough terrain of the Richardson Mountains near Rock River YT. The mad trapper traveersed this region in around -40C conditions and in a blizzard
The tough terrain of the Richardson Mountains near Rock River YT. The mad trapper traversed this region in -40C conditions and in a blizzard © Phillip Kay and Rylan Firth via CBC

The Mounties were now flummoxed as they had lost his trail in the blizzard and as he had not attempted to cross either of the two passes.

A plane was called in, which by chance spotted his trail on the other side of the mountains. The following posse was informed by radio and headed up the Eagle River where they finally surprised him out in the open on February 17, 1932.

Another shootout occurred with Johnson. Caught on the frozen river with no cover, he was an easy target, and was hit.

He continued shooting back. He was hit again, and again, in fact eight times but still fought back wounding an officer. Finally a ninth shot  shot proved fatal.

On his body was found some $2,000 in cash, but no identification.

Photos of the frozen face *the Mad Trapper* in death

The epic chase across the Arctic had intrigued world radio listeners who had been following the news day after day, week after week.

In the almost 6 week chase they realized that in deep snow, through blizzards and -40 degree weather, Johnson had been chase for at least 240 km but he had probably actually travelled much more due to his doubling back several times to throw off his persuers.

In one more of his incredible feats, he had travelle some 137km in three days in a blizzard, seemingly without food, while also managing to climbing an impossible mountain.

During the chase he had travelled on foot twice as fast as his pursuers with their dog teams and sled.  He often doubled back and circled around to throw them off his trail, and travelled right through a couple of whiteout blizzards that completely stopped the trackers.

In spite of two autopsies, the last in 2007, his identity, or even his real name has never been determined.  Several people over the years had claimed a possible connection, but the DNA tests showed no relation.  The only clue came from isotopes in his teeth which showed he probably grew up in the US Midwest “cornbelt”.

Unearthing the body of the mad trapper for DNA analysis in 2007 © CP / Matthew Spidell

As such, the mystery remains to this day of who he was, why he came to the remote far north, and why he acted as he did.

The legend has been subject of books, songs, and documentaries. A 1981 Hollywood version “Death Hunt” featuring Lee Marvin, and Charles Bronson, re-invents and in typical Hollywood fashion, is only very loosely based on actual events.

A British TV version was made in 1972 called “the Mad Trapper”, and another called “Challenge to be free” in 1975, as well as documentaries and a number of books on this legendary wilderness chase and unsolvable mystery of who he was, what he was hiding or running from, and why he acted the way he did.

Additional information- sources

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Environment, International, Society

Do you want to report an error or a typo? Click here!

@*@ Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

Note: By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that Radio Canada International has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Radio Canada International does not endorse any of the views posted. Your comments will be pre-moderated and published if they meet netiquette guidelines.

Netiquette »

When you express your personal opinion in an online forum, you must be as courteous as if you were speaking with someone face-to-face. Insults and personal attacks will not be tolerated. To disagree with an opinion, an idea or an event is one thing, but to show disrespect for other people is quite another. Great minds don’t always think alike—and that’s precisely what makes online dialogue so interesting and valuable.

Netiquette is the set of rules of conduct governing how you should behave when communicating via the Internet. Before you post a message to a blog or forum, it’s important to read and understand these rules. Otherwise, you may be banned from posting.

  1. RCInet.ca’s online forums are not anonymous. Users must register, and give their full name and place of residence, which are displayed alongside each of their comments. RCInet.ca reserves the right not to publish comments if there is any doubt as to the identity of their author.
  2. Assuming the identity of another person with intent to mislead or cause harm is a serious infraction that may result in the offender being banned.
  3. RCInet.ca’s online forums are open to everyone, without regard to age, ethnic origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
  4. Comments that are defamatory, hateful, racist, xenophobic, sexist, or that disparage an ethnic origin, religious affiliation or age group will not be published.
  5. In online speak, writing in ALL CAPS is considered yelling, and may be interpreted as aggressive behaviour, which is unpleasant for the people reading. Any message containing one or more words in all caps (except for initialisms and acronyms) will be rejected, as will any message containing one or more words in bold, italic or underlined characters.
  6. Use of vulgar, obscene or objectionable language is prohibited. Forums are public places and your comments could offend some users. People who use inappropriate language will be banned.
  7. Mutual respect is essential among users. Insulting, threatening or harassing another user is prohibited. You can express your disagreement with an idea without attacking anyone.
  8. Exchanging arguments and opposing views is a key component of healthy debate, but it should not turn into a dialogue or private discussion between two users who address each other without regard for the other participants. Messages of this type will not be posted.
  9. Radio Canada International publishes contents in five languages. The language used in the forums has to be the same as the contents we publish. The usage of other languages, with the exception of some words, is forbidden. Messages that are off-topic will not be published.
  10. Making repetitive posts disrupts the flow of discussions and will not be tolerated.
  11. Adding images or any other type of file to comments is forbidden. Including hyperlinks to other websites is allowed, as long as they comply with netiquette. Radio Canada International  is in no way responsible for the content of such sites, however.
  12. Copying and pasting text written by someone else, even if you credit the author, is unacceptable if that text makes up the majority of your comment.
  13. Posting any type of advertising or call to action, in any form, to Radio Canada International  forums is prohibited.
  14. All comments and other types of content are moderated before publication. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to refuse any comment for publication.
  15. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to close a forum at any time, without notice.
  16. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to amend this code of conduct (netiquette) at any time, without notice.
  17. By participating in its online forums, you allow Radio Canada International to publish your comments on the web for an indefinite time. This also implies that these messages will be indexed by Internet search engines.
  18. Radio Canada International has no obligation to remove your messages from the web if one day you request it. We invite you to carefully consider your comments and the consequences of their posting.

*