The Hunt for the Mad Trapper of Rat River

As the world's eye turns to the waters of the Indian Ocean in the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, speculations abound about its fate – perhaps too many some say. The massive air search for any sign of debris is reportedly the largest in history, though we don't have any facts to confirm that claim. It brings to mind another search by air that happened eighty years ago – the first in Canadian history. The manhunt for the Mad Trapper of Rat River spanned hundreds of kilometres and used searches by plane and radio communication. It is relatively well known among the public and historians alike as one of Canada's great mysteries. We still don't know the true identity of Albert Johnson and what went through his head during the month-long manhunt through the Canadian arctic that resulted in his death.

There are many evocative accounts of the RCMP hunt for the “Mad Trapper” in January of 1932. In short, a man claiming to be Albert Johnson arrived in the small town of Fort McPherson, located in the northwestern corner of the Northwest Territories, during the summer of 1931. After buying supplies, he headed north to the Rat River where he built a rough wood cabin before winter. That Christmas a Gwich'in trapper complained to the RCMP that someone had been interfering with trapping lines and a few days later an RCMP contingent went out to ask Albert Johnson if he had anything to do with it.

They arrived at a sturdy log shack on an outcropping over the river that gave him a clear view of any visitors. Two RCMP officers, Alfred King and Joe Bernard, arrived at noon on December 28 and asked to talk to Johnson. Johnson refused to leave his cabin or even utter a single word. They decided to return to the northern RCMP outpost at Aklavik for a search warrant. After a brief 120-kilometre trip back to Aklavik, the police officers returned with two more constables and a search warrant. On 31 December they again approached Johnson's cabin. King knocked on the door and was met with a shot through the chest. Slumping to the ground, his fellow officers opened fire and pulled him away. Carrying him back to Aklavik by dogsled, King survived the wound and Johnson earned new charges.

A third expedition set out and reached his cabin on the morning of 9 January, this time with eight men and 20 pounds of dynamite. During a 15-hour siege they tried to force Johnson out of the cabin. By the time night fell they decided to try their dynamite. Twice they threw dynamite at the cabin but it left Johnson unscathed. Every time they cautiously approached the ruins, shots rang out meaning Johnson was still alive. Running out of food, dynamite and ideas, the RCMP returned back to Aklavik in the early hours of the morning.

A small detachment returned to the cabin on 14 January and discovered Johnson had disappeared into the wilderness. By 16 January, another posse was ready to hunt the trapper down. A group of RCMP officers, local citizens, and Gwich'in began to spread out through the forest searching for a sign of Johnson's trail. In temperatures dropping to minus forty, they trudged through the deep snow and dark forests. Johnson was apparently an expert. He made sure to travel across the hard packed ridges of snow that barely left a footprint. He travelled in a zigzag pattern and in wide circles to throw off his pursuers. He used snares to hunt for small game so he didn't have to fire his rifle. On 30 January the team tracked Johnson to a snow-filled canyon where once more he confronted the RCMP. This time Constable Edgar Millen was shot and the men were forced to withdraw once again.

Johnson vanished from the canyon, having no choice but to climb straight up a cliff and head into the Richardson Mountains towards the Yukon. The RCMP called in a plane to help their search and within a week W.R. “Wop” May (a nickname from his niece) arrived to start searching for Johnson by air and ferrying supplies to the teams on the ground. May was one of Canada's fighter pilots during the First World War, a double ace who shot down thirteen German planes. After the war he started operating passenger and mail services. In the expansive north, the plane could cross the rough landscape far more quickly than an individual on foot. Even if he hadn't been helping search for Johnson, he could transport several hundred pounds of invaluable supplies to the searchers deep in the snowy wilds above the Arctic circle.

They stationed men to watch the passes through the Richardson Mountains, though in the snowy conditions it seemed unlikely Johnson would make it through. Then in mid-February, several Gwich'in reported seeing strange snowshoes tracks – but west of the mountains that the men guarded! To this day, we don't know how Johnson made it through the Richardson Mountains since he seemingly avoided the passes and must have crossed directly over them instead. Johnson had been on the run by himself for a month in the minus forty degree weather while still managing to elude capture. His trail was picked up by May from the air. Slowly they closed in on Johnson. On the morning of February 17, 1932, they finally caught up to Johnson as he was backtracking along the Eagle River. Believing that the RCMP was in front of him, Johnson had turned around and was walking backwards through his own tracks on the frozen river to create a false trail.

Constable Hersey was moving ahead of the search party when he came across Johnson. A shot ripped through Hersey's chest as he went down and the others spread out around the river banks. Johnson dug into the snow on the river and another standoff began. This time Johnson was completely surrounded and caught out in the open. A brief gun battle ensued until finally, May's plane flew over and confirmed that Johnson had been killed. May quickly landed on the river and flew the injured Hersey back to Aklavik. Johnson's body was also returned. He was fingerprinted and the RCMP sorted through his meagre possessions. He had $2,410 in Canadian bills, pearls, pieces of gold dental work, guns and ammo, a compass and some supplies. He had no identification or papers of any kind. The fingerprints came back with no identification and today we still have no idea who Johnson was.

Now this story has been told many times over the years since 1932, probably in far better detail than we have space for here. We heard it in the classroom of Professor Whitney Lackenbauer, though there are dozens of books on the topic. It's a great story of Canadian history as it weaves together so many different threads. It can be a story of encroaching state control over Canada's north in the aftermath of the Klondike Gold Rush. It can be a story of the RCMP who “always get their man.” It can be a story of the Gwich'in who helped the RCMP find Johnson. Or a story of technology and its impact on Canadian policing and northern life. It was a first in Canadian history for two important technological reasons: one, it was the first time an airplane was used in a search in the Canadian north, and two, it took advantage of the radio to coordinate the hunt for Johnson. Both dramatically impacted the hunt's outcome and the story's longevity in Canadian history.

As the RCMP was searching for Johnson in January and February of 1932, they were also radioing back their progress. The radio allowed officials to coordinate groups over hundreds of kilometres while searching for Johnson and it also spread news of the search across the country. Each day, Canadians gathered around their radio sets and the news broadcast delivered the latest twist in Johnson's story. Like today with the Malaysian flight, the search was eagerly followed by the public. By the time he was captured Johnson had became a sort of underdog celebrity who kept escaping the relentless RCMP. The “Mad Trapper of Rat River” would become one of Canada's great “villains” and enduring mysteries. There have a been a lot of theories about Johnson's identity, even some recent ones, but we still don't have any definitive answers.

We have no informative comparisons between Flight MH370 and the Mad Trapper. They are similar stories in that both have entranced a generation of listeners or watchers. Both take advantage of a relatively new technology (the radio or the internet) to keep the public “up to date” on all the developments in the mysterious story. Both offer more questions than answers. Hopefully we find out what happened to MH370 and it does not become too much like the story of the Mad Trapper of Rat River: a historical mystery that may never be solved.