Day 22 - Aklavik NWT
You can visit the grave of the Mad Trapper of Rat River in Aklavik. There is also a big board that describes the biggest manhunt in the Northwest Territorie's history and how Albert Johnson almost magically managed to eluded the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) team sent to take him into custody. The legendary chase has been written about in a number of books, featured in 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.
Details of Albert Johnson's life before his arrival in Fort McPherson on July 9, 1931 are unknown. Soon after arriving the approximately 35-year-old with cold blue eyes and a stocky muscular build constructed a small 8x10 foot cabin on the banks of the Rat River, near the Mackenzie River delta. He was not alone among lots of of other men who were fleeing the rampant unemployment in the cities during the "dirty thirties", that had taken up trapping and living by their wits in the wilderness of the Northwest Territories. But what set Johnson apart from everybody else, was that he never cared to socialize and that he never paid for a trapping license.
When some trapping First Nation had put their traps too close to those of Albert Johnson, he tripped them and hanged them up in the trees as sort of a warning. In December one of these local trappers complained to the local RCMP detachment in Aklavik that someone was tampering with his traps. 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 could see that Johnson was there, but he refused to talk to them, seeming not to even notice them. King approached in the -30˚C temperature and looked in the window, at which point Johnson placed a sack over it. The officers eventually decided to return to Aklavik and get a search warrant. When they came back two days later with an enforcement of another two officers as well as a civilian deputy, Johnson again refused to have anything whatsoever to do with them. King decided to force the door and enforce the warrant, but Johnson shot him through the wood. A brief firefight broke out, and the team managed after a 20 hour dog sled ride back to Aklavik, to save the life of the Constable.
Now a posse of nine men was formed with 42 dogs and 20 pounds (9 kg) of dynamite which they intended to use to blast Johnson out of the cabin. When they surrounded the cabin they could see that Johnson had felled all the trees around it and drilled holes in the wall of his cabin for in all directions for his gun. 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 roof, 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. Albert Johnson seemed to be no average trapper. The Mounties said of him to that he was capable of great feats and crafty beyond belief. The local Inuit said at one point in the chase that Johnson could snowshoe 2 miles for every 1 mile a dog team had to break trail.
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 to hundreds, enlisting local Inuit and Gwich'in who were better able to move in the back country. Johnson eventually decided to leave for the Yukon or Alaska, but the RCMP had blocked the only two passes over the local Richardson mountains. That didn't stop Johnson however, 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 in his new ski-equipped Bellanca monoplane. 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 (that he sometimes put on in the opposite direction to fool his pursuers) . 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, after their 150 mile (240 kilometer) foot chase. 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. The story of Albert Johnson is truly a Canadian Mystery that still beckons to be solved. No family member ever claimed Albert Johnson's body. Before entering the Arctic River area no one had ever heard of him. His finger prints were no help to identify him? In August 2007, a forensic team exhumed his body and conducted forensic tests in an attempt to conclusively establish his true identity in conjunction with a documentary film (for Discovery Channel by Myth Merchant Films), but the mystery persists. 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. The former Swedish Press editor Sture Wermee in the book De Siusta Svenska Rösterna by Gunnar Nilsson claimed that Albert Johnson was a calm and kind Swede from Småland that had lived with a Swedish family in North Vancouver.