Tuesday, September 1, 2009
The Mad Trapper of Rat River
The Mad Trapper of Rat River has always been one of my favorite Survival and evasion stories. The RCMP chased this guy for 48 days and covered about 150 miles in winter before they finally killed him. He was never known to have built a fire to cook food or warm himself during the entire chase period. He carried 2 rifles , a 300 Savage 30.30 "Feather weight" lever action, and a Pump .22, his pack weighed about 200 pounds. Also, I thought what he was carrying in his pockets at the time of his death was interesting.
Albert Johnson known as the Mad Trapper of Rat River, was a fugitive whose actions eventually sparked off a huge manhunt in the Northwest Territories in Canada. The event became a minor media circus as Johnson eluded the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) team sent to take him into custody, which ended after a 150 mile (240 km) foot chase and a shootout in which Johnson was fatally wounded.
Details of Johnson's life before his arrival in Fort McPherson on July 9, 1931 are unknown. Soon after arriving he built a small 8x10 foot cabin on the banks of the Rat River, near the Mackenzie River delta. Johnson did not take out a trapping license, however, which was considered somewhat odd for someone living in the bush.
In December one of the local trappers complained to the local RCMP detachment in Aklavik that someone was tampering with his traps, tripping them and hanging them on the trees. He identified Johnson as the likely culprit. On December 31 Constable Alfred King and Special Constable Joe Bernard, each of whom had considerable northern experience, trekked out to Johnson's cabin to ask him about the allegations. They noticed smoke coming from the chimney, and approached the hut to talk. Johnson refused to talk to them, seeming to not even notice them. King approached and looked in the window, at which point Johnson placed a sack over it. They eventually decided to return to Aklavik and get a search warrant.
They returned two days later with two additional RCMP officers and a civilian deputy. Johnson again refused to talk and eventually King decided to enforce the warrant and force the door. As soon as he started, Johnson shot him through the wood. A brief firefight broke out, and the team managed to return King to Aklavik, where he eventually recovered.
A posse was formed – this time with nine men, 42 dogs and 20 pounds (9 kg) of dynamite which they intended to use to blast Johnson out of the cabin. After surrounding the cabin they thawed the dynamite inside their coats, eventually building a single charge and tossing it into the cabin. After the explosion collapsed the building, the men rushed in. Johnson opened fire from a foxhole he had dug under the building. No one was hit, and after a 15 hour standoff in the 40-below weather the posse again decided to return to Aklavik for further instructions.
By this point news of the events had filtered out to the rest of the world via radio. When the posse returned on January 14, delayed because of almost continual blizzards, Johnson had left the cabin and the posse gave chase. They eventually caught up to Johnson on January 30, surrounding him at the bottom of a cliff. In the ensuing firefight, Johnson shot Constable Millen through the heart.  The troops remained in position, and that night Johnson scaled the cliff to elude the RCMP once again.
The posse continued to grow, enlisting local Inuit and Gwich'in who were better able to move in the back country. Johnson eventually decided to leave for the Yukon, but the RCMP had blocked the only two passes over the local Richardson mountains. That didn't stop Johnson, who climbed a 7,000 foot peak and once again disappeared. This was only discovered when an Inuit trapper reported odd tracks on the far side of the mountains.
In desperation, the RCMP hired Wop May to help in the hunt by scouting the area from the air. He arrived in his new ski-equipped Bellanca monoplane on the 5th. On February 14 he discovered the trick Johnson had been using to elude his followers, when he noticed a set of footprints leading off the center of the Eagle River to the bank. Johnson had been following the caribou tracks in the middle of the river, where they walked in order to give them better visibility of approaching predators. Walking in their tracks hid his own footprints, and allowed him to travel quickly on the tramped-down snow without having to use his snowshoes. He only left the trail at night to make camp on the river bank, which is the track May had spotted. May radioed back his findings and the RCMP gave chase up the river, eventually being directed to Johnson by February 17.
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, but didn't have his snowshoes on and couldn't make it. A firefight broke out in which one RCMP officer was seriously wounded and Johnson was eventually killed after being shot nine times. May landed and flew the officer to help, being credited with saving his life.
An examination of Johnson's body yielded over two thousand dollars in both American and Canadian currency as well as some gold, a pocket compass, a razor, a knife, fish hooks, nails, a dead squirrel, and a dead bird. During the entire chase, the Mounties had never heard Johnson say a single word. To this day no one knows for certain who he was, why he moved to the Arctic, or if he was actually responsible for interfering with the trap lines as alleged.
Two relatively recent theories regarding Albert Johnson's identity have appeared in print. In the 1989 book "Trackdown" by Dick North, the mad trapper was identified as John Johnson from North Dakota. More recently, in the 2007 book "What Became of Sigvald Anyway" the mad trapper is identified as Sigvald Pedersen Haaskjold by Mark Fremmerlid. Other writers such as Frank Anderson, Helena Katz, and Thomas P. Kelley, have considered the case unsolved.
On August 11, 2007, a forensic team exhumed his body and conducted forensic tests on his remains before re-interning it. Forensic examination is now underway in an attempt to conclusively establish his true identity. Results of this testing will be released in conjunction with the documentary film being done for Discovery Channel by Myth Merchant Films
The event has been written about in a number of books, a song by Wilf Carter, as well as a fictionalized account that was later turned into the movie Death Hunt, starring Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin.
Please find below an excerpt from the Book "The mad trapper of Rat river" by: Dick North
"The man was five feet nine inches tall. He had blond hair and pale blue eyes. He weighed 175 pounds, with legs like tree stumps; his neck and shoulders were as powerful as a caribou bull’s. His name was Arthur Nelson. He unslung the two rifles he carried over his two-hundred-pound pack. He put one rifle into the snow. It was a Winchester .22. He hefted the other rifle in his hands and quietly racked a shell into the breech. It was a 30-30 Model 99 Featherweight "take-down" Savage, and made up in muzzle velocity what is lacked in size. Slowly, the rugged, clear-eyed man knelt down into the snow. Unseen, he eyed the figure of a man following him here, above McQuesten Flats fifteen miles north of Keno, Yukon Territory. It was May 7, 1931, and he was heading to the Beaver River, and then across the Wernecke Mountains to the Arctic slope, and from there down north to the Porcupine country. He wanted to be alone and was ready to ensure that he would be. Slowly, he raised the rifle to his shoulder. Ten more steps and the man would be close enough. Nelson put his index finder through the trigger-guard of the rifle. He counted nine, eight, seven, six, five - suddenly the stranger stopped, looked around briefly, and then turned and started back the way he had come. Nelson brought the Savage down from his shoulder. He had seen that the man wore the chocolate brown drill parka of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Nelson shrugged his shoulders and slung the two rifles over his pack and continued north. He was never seen again."