Murder in northern Canada, with a suspect on the run in a remote area with challenging terrain. The famed Royal Canadian Mounted Police are in pursuit, using teams of highly-trained searchers armed with the latest technology.
Residents in the area are warned to be vigilant and careful. An airplane is called in to assist the trackers on the ground. Despite intense efforts, however, the suspect continues to elude searchers. And as all this plays out in an isolated corner of Canada, in and around tiny communities that few have heard of and which are a world away from urban residents, news of the manhunt is broadcast to avid listeners throughout North America, who tune in breathlessly for the latest developments.
This describes the current search for Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, Vancouver Island teens wanted in connection with the deaths of three people in northern British Columbia in July 2019.
However, it also describes an event from nearly nine decades ago, when all of North America was riveted by the search for the man dubbed “The Mad Trapper of Rat River”—a man whose identity and motives remain obscure to this day.
By 1931 the Great Depression had taken hold, sending many men north. Most came in search of work, a better life, or adventure, while some were on the move for shadier reasons. Strangers arriving in remote settlements in the north of Canada were not unusual, but it was also not unusual for a local RCMP officer to meet with the newcomer, ask a few questions, ascertain their plans, and try to ensure that the person was equipped for life in the rugged north. If they were not prepared, it was the RCMP’s job to try to convince them to return south.
In July 1931 a man calling himself Albert Johnson arrived in Fort McPherson, NWT, and Const. Edgar Millen—who was in charge of the three-man detachment at Arctic Red River, just south of the Arctic Circle—was told to meet with the man. Millen travelled to Fort McPherson and soon found Johnson, who volunteered little information about himself and was distinctly cool towards the policeman.
Johnson said he had spent the summer of 1930 on the Canadian prairies and then come north via the Mackenzie River system, but did not say where he had spent the winter of 1930/31. He told Millen he was only staying in Fort McPherson until he had replaced his outfit, which he said he had lost. Then he intended to head into the area of the Rat River, some 20 miles to the northwest.
Millen told him that if he intended to trap, he needed to get a trapping licence. There the matter rested, as Millen returned to Arctic Red River and Johnson eventually made his way up the Rat River. He chose a flat, wooded piece of land in a bend of the river, with water on three sides, and built himself a stout 8 by 12 foot cabin, digging three feet down into the earth and then building walls five feet high around the hole. The cabin had a sloped roof, and a single small window beside the door, which was just large enough for a man to enter.
There he spent the summer and fall of 1931, about 70 miles from Arctic Red River, keeping to himself and bothering no one. In December, however, Johnson found that some Loucheux Indians had set traps near his own trap line. Not happy with this, he removed the traps and then hung them from a tree in silent protest.
When the traps were discovered, the Indians made the trip to Arctic Red River to report the incident. Millen knew that Johnson had not purchased a trapping licence at his detachment, and there was some doubt that he had purchased one at all. On Boxing Day 1931, Millen directed his two fellow constables—King and Bernard—to make the trek to Johnson’s cabin and question him.
The two men made the trip by dogsled, arriving at Johnson’s tiny cabin shortly after 10 a.m. on Dec. 27. Snowshoes were propped by the cabin’s door, and smoke came from the chimney, indicating that Johnson was in the cabin or close by. King knocked, but there was no answer. The two officers spent an hour knocking and trying to convince Johnson to open the door and talk to them, but he refused, and did not say a word the entire time. At one point King noticed that Johnson was watching him through the window, but the man immediately dropped a piece of cloth across it.
King and Bernard finally gave up. With no warrant, and no way of contacting Millen, they travelled to RCMP headquarters at Aklavik and obtained a search warrant. Accompanied by Const. Robert McDowell and Special Const. Lazarus Sittichiulis, King and Bernard returned to Johnson’s cabin, where King approached the closed door.
He knocked, and asked if Johnson was inside. The response was a bullet fired through the door, which struck King in the chest. He fell to the ground, and McDowell immediately opened fire on the cabin, hoping to distract Johnson’s attention from the wounded man, who was fully exposed to a follow-up shot.
His plan worked, allowing King to pull himself up and stagger to safety. McDowell, realizing the gravity of King’s situation, jettisoned most of the supplies from his dogsled, placed King on it, then drove himself, his other two companions, and his dogs mercilessly, covering the 80 miles to the nearest hospital in Aklavik—a journey that usually took two days—in 20 hours.
King survived the attack. While he recovered, the RCMP planned their next step, which involved an 18-hour siege of Johnson’s cabin intended to flush the man out with gunfire and dynamite. Despite the best efforts of the Mounties, however, Johnson did not budge, even when dynamite almost destroyed the cabin. He continued to fire back at police, preventing them from rushing the cabin and capturing him.
The bitter cold, exhaustion, and lack of supplies forced the police contingent back to Aklavik. Two days later they returned to Johnson’s cabin, only to find that the man had fled. A search of his cabin revealed no clues as to his identity. A blizzard that had accompanied Johnson’s departure from the cabin would have hampered the man, but also obscured his traces from anyone wanting to track him.
But tracking him down was of paramount importance. Little did anyone know that the search for Albert Johnson would last for more than six weeks in brutal terrain and weather, involve the use of what was then cutting-edge technology, lead to the death of a policeman, and grip a continent as a manhunt unfolded in the wilds of northern Canada.
To be continued.