By Maurice Tougas
This February marks the 90th anniversary of one of the greatest stories of heroism, survival and aviation in the history of the Canadian north.
It was on Feb. 17, 1932 that the RCMP – with the first-ever assistance of soon-to-be legendary bush pilot Wilfred ‘Wop’ May – tracked down and killed a mysterious and dangerous stranger known as The Mad Trapper of Rat River.
The legend began in July, 1931, when a newcomer arrived in Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories. The stranger, identified by locals as Albert Johnson, moved to the trapping grounds of the Rat River, where he built a small cabin. Little was heard from Johnson for months. But on Christmas Day 1931, the RCMP received complaints that Johnson had been interfering with local First Nations traplines. Two Mounties set out to talk to Johnson, but upon arriving at his cabin, he refused to talk to them. Const. Alfred King was forced to travel 128 km to Aklavik to obtain a search warrant.
On Dec. 31, four Mounties went to Johnson’s cabin with the search warrant. When Const. King knocked on the cabin door, Johnson fired a blast through the door, hitting King in the chest. The other Mounties returned fire, then loaded the seriously injured King onto a dogsled to return to Aklavik.
King survived, but the attempt on his life elevated a small trapping violation into a major incident. RCMP Inspector Alexander Eames led a posse of eight men to arrest Johnson at his cabin. When approached by the posse on Jan. 9, Johnson again opened fire, and held off repeated attempts to storm his cabin. The next day, the posse resorted to dynamiting Johnson’s cabin, blowing off the roof and partially collapsing a wall. Still, Johnson kept firing. The posse, faced with -40C temperatures and food running low, retreated to Aklavik. Two of the posse returned on Jan. 14, only to find Johnson gone, his footprints obscured by snow. When news of the escape reached the outside world, the story became a media sensation.
Two weeks of searching a 260 sq. km area failed to find the elusive and resilient Johnson. But on Jan. 30th, Johnson was finally tracked down. Again refusing to surrender, Johnson opened fire, hitting Const. Edgar Millen directly in the heart, killing him. And again, Johnson eluded capture, this time by climbing an almost vertical cliff in pitch darkness.
Displaying extraordinary stamina and skills as a woodsman, Johnson survived in weather so cold it kept even experienced Indigenous hunters indoors. Insp. Eames came upon the novel idea of using an aircraft in the pursuit. Enter Wop May, the famous First World War ace and bush pilot. Flying a Bellanca monoplane, May ferried men and supplied to strategic locations and searched for Johnson from the air.
On Feb. 14, May sighted Johnson’s trail. It took another three days for the posse to track down Johnson. While May watched from overhead, yet another gun battle ensued on Feb. 17 on the frozen Eagle River. Using his backpack for cover, Johnson opened fire and shot Sgt. Earl Hersey. Directed by signals from May, the posse caught Johnson in a crossfire, finally bringing him down in a hail of gunfire.
May performed one more life saving maneuver. Landing his ski-equipped plane on the frozen lake, he bundled the injured Hersey and flew him to Aklavik. Without May’s flight, Hersey would certainly have died. May then flew back to the site of the battle to retrieve the body of The Mad Trapper of Rat River.
The world followed the story via radio reports, and the story of Albert Johnson became a sensation, and then an enduring Northern legend. But to this day, the real identify of the Mad Trapper remains a mystery. No clue was found to his identity in his personal possessions, and his fingerprints were not on file anywhere in Canada or the U.S. A 1989 book, Trackdown: The Search for the Mad Trapper built a case that he was an American named Arthur Nelson, but recent study pours cold water on that theory. To this day, his identity remains a mystery; however a good DNA sequence was recently obtained, and we now know that he was of Swedish descent. Researchers are looking for modern relatives to try to piece the story back together.
And despite his famous nickname, he clearly was not ‘mad’. Inspector A. N. Eames, Officer in Command of the Western Arctic Sub-district, had this to say about the ‘Mad’ Trapper: “I note in press reports that Johnson is referred to as the ‘demented trapper.’ On the contrary, he showed himself to be an extremely shrewd and resolute man, capable of quick thought and action. A tough and desperate character.”
Whatever his true identity, the Mad Trapper of Rat River and Wop May are forever linked in the history books of the great Canadian north.