HomeNorthwest TerritoriesAlbert Johnson – The Mad Trapper of Rat River

Albert Johnson – The Mad Trapper of Rat River

Albert Johnson’s arrival in Fort MacPherson, July 9th 1931 on the southern edge of the Mackenzie delta (67 degrees N latitude) was by all accounts non-eventful. He was about 35 years of age, a very taciturn person with cold blue eyes coupled with a stocky muscular build. These physical characteristics in men that trapped for a living in the north were nothing out of the ordinary.  So how did he earn the name The Mad Trapper of Rat River?

Mad Trapper of Rat River - Albert Johnson

Albert Johnson – Mad Trapper of Rat River

What the local people considered strange, however, was the fact that Albert Johnson did not bother to get a trapping license even though he built an 8′ X 10′ cabin with a good view on 3 sides in a prime trapping site on the Rat River.

With the trapping season in full swing by early December 1931 some of Albert’s neighbors began having someone disrupt their traps. The only change from last season to this one – was Albert Johnson. On Dec. 31 Constable Alfred ‘Buns’ King and Special Constable Joe Bernard, each of whom had much northern experience, decided to call on Johnson to investigate. When they approached his cabin they noticed smoke billowing up from the chimney giving the impression that he was in the cabin. But Albert wasn’t in a talking mood.

After many attempts to strike up a conversation in 40 below temperatures and getting nowhere with a man holed up with a gun, they decided to return to Aklavik to get reinforcements.

They returned with 2 more Mounties plus one civilian. After the first knock on the door and without, warning suddenly a shot rang out wounding Constable King. A hasty retreat and a 20 hour dog sled ride back to Aklavik saved the life of the Constable.

On Jan 4, 1932, with 9 men, 42 dogs and 40 pounds of dynamite, a posse was determined to bring this fugitive in. Once their positions were secure on the cabin perimeter, the dynamite was thawed out by holding it under their coats close to their bodies.


Albert Johnson Blown Up Cabin

The dynamite was thrown into the structure and a massive explosion ripped the roof clean off with one of the walls caving in.

As the Mounties entered the cabin to remove the corpse, Johnson stood up from a fox hole he dug firing 2 weapons narrowly missing both officers. A hasty retreat was in order again. After a 15 hr siege and food starting to run low they returned to Aklavik to contemplate their next move.

While all this was going on people in the rest of the continent were fixed to their radios listening to the first live reporting of a RCMP manhunt in Canada’s north as it occurred. The whole affair was now dubbed the Mad Trapper of Rat River.

A third patrol was dispatched on Jan 14. But this time Johnson had fled his cabin fortress. For 2 weeks in near 50 below zero weather and two blizzards Johnson evaded his captures.

On Jan 30th he was confronted once more. After a short shootout, Constable ‘Spike’ Millen lay dead – shot through the heart.  (There was no one around who had been through any type of nurse practitioner programs.)  Johnson made his escape by climbing a sheer cliff in the dead of night.

Albert Johnson seemed to be no average trapper. The Mounties said of him to be 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.



Johnson had been back tracking in ever larger circles for the past month to evade capture. At this time hundreds of men were now tracking him. He had guns but could not use them to hunt for food – they would give away his position. He had means to light a fire to cook what food he could snare but the fire again would aid his pursuers. He also had to build shelters in snow drifts, surely his clothes must have started to get wet from perspiration and/or the elements.

When and where could he build a fire large enough to dry his clothes out or eat properly to help ward off the effects of 50 below zero weather? A tantalizing question.

Now Johnson’s greatest feat was about to happen. Johnson could see that the Arctic Red River district was becoming to difficult to manage. His only avenue of escape was to traverse the Richardson mountains and head into the high country of the northern Yukon. The Mounties had already closed the door on that idea by guarding the only two passes through this range. But the quick thinking Johnson pulled another fast one on the Mounties.

During a raging blizzard he climbed over these 7,000 ft mountains with very little food and no climbing gear. With visibility during the blizzard at near zero, trying to cling to sheer cliffs of slippery ice and numbing cold, the mountain men of the area told the Mounties it would be impossible to do at this time of the year even with the proper gear and food.

A native trapper traveling through one of the guarded passes told of strange tracks on the upper reaches of the Eagle River, Yukon. Assuming that this could be Johnson on the other side of mountains, the Mounties knew they were no match in overtaking this fugitive.

In a Canadian first, on Feb 7, 1932 a monoplane piloted by W.R. (Wop) May was pressed into service to aid in the search to finally corner Johnson.

On February 17, 1932 May directed the Mounties to a hairpin turn in the middle section of the Eagle River where a gun battle eventually brought Johnson down. It took 9 bullets to Johnson’s body to finally end this 5 week ordeal.

Where did he come from (his finger prints were no help)? No family member ever claimed the body. Before entering the Arctic River area no one had ever heard of him. During the entire man hunt the Mounties never heard him speak a word. And yet he had over $2,000 in cash and some placer gold in his possession.

The story of Albert Johnson is truly a Canadian Mystery that still beckons to be solved.

Ed note:  You can visit the grave of the Albert Johnson The Mad Trapper in Aklavik, NWT.

Mad Trapper Albert Johnson Grave

Albert Johnson Grave

Albert Johnson - The Mad Trapper of Rat River
Article Name
Albert Johnson - The Mad Trapper of Rat River
With the trapping season in full swing by early December 1931 some of Albert Johnson's neighbors began having someone disrupt their traps.
Publisher Name
Mysteries of Canada

Written by

Author of Mysteries of Canada

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14 Responses to “Albert Johnson – The Mad Trapper of Rat River”

By DavidB - 13 May 2019 Reply

I have read this story many times my great grandma use to talk about him. She claims that he was their neighbour in the early 1920’s I do not know if who she was talking about was Albert Johnson but the way he acted was very strange and he was really quiet and kept to himself. Then one day he stopped by their house and said he was done farming and was going to go up north and trap. My great grandma said he had a rope for s belt and my great grand father gave him a belt and he rode off to north country on pale horse. My grandma told me the colour of his horse cause she said that is all she remembered about him.
I do not know for sure if this was actually Albert Johnson but I have read a book that said he had a grub stake for a short period of time. Maybe this was it the time line matched with my grandma age so it is possible I guess. This all took place at Days land Alberta I still might look to see if there was a census taken and if possible the name Albert Johnson or Arthur Nelson could be on the land title next to my great grandma land.

By Gwen Kushner - 16 September 2018 Reply

My Dad was there in the hungry thirties and he told me the local people said the man
did nothing wrong and were wondering why the Mounties were chasing him.

By David A Williams - 3 August 2018 Reply

I was on an oil well that was drilled back in 1968 out of Calgary,Alberta, The Oil company wanted to call the well~~The mad trapper ~~ however the OIL & GAS BOARD of the NWT said . So the well was called ~~TREELESS CREEK~~. We also drilled the second well about 14 km away from the first well known as Treeless creek. I ENJOYED my work in the NORTH COUNTRY.I live in Alberta,Canada ~~retired~~.

By A Burton - 9 April 2018 Reply

Just another story of a free man hunted down and murdered by the state because he was not under their control. Don’t resist or fight back, just lie down and die.

By Doug Moran - 31 May 2017 Reply

Back in the late fifties I grew up with this story, oral and written. Then one Mother’s Day, 50 yrs later, I was working in Aklavik and stood at that very gravesite reflecting back on those stories wondering just who this man was..Too bad I can’t post my picture of the site.

[…] The story of Albert Johnson is truly a Canadian Mystery that still beckons to be solved.” (Ricketts, 2015) […]

By rick - 17 November 2015 Reply

I’ve seen that pic of the guy, the photo alive of him. Can’t remember where but it was recent. And not dead lol. Where did I see that man?

By Paul York - 19 June 2015 Reply

the only confirmed photos of Johnson are the death photos — Dick North’s book is speculative — in 2009 they dug up the bones and did a DNA test — he was not the people many authors speculated that he may be — to this day no one knows his true idenity

By alvan - 15 June 2015 Reply

Never seen that pic before what makes you think it’s Albert Johnson?

By Rosa - 14 November 2015 Reply

27/04/2012 at 10:37 pmseveral of us have double cceekhd and the only way you can do anything more is to go there in person. that’s right the RCMP has done that over the years and they are the ones who said there never was a village in that location, it is the hoaxsters or UFO searchers who wanted to sell books about a mystery that never was who started this. there are plenty of valid mysteries without worrying about one that never happened

By Marvin - 16 May 2015 Reply

Elin I do not recall where he obtained the photo , but author Dick North published it in is book ‘Mad Trapper of Rat River” .
Mr. North along with most of the other “authorities ” he met with to gain knowledge of who Albert really was have long since passed on.
I apologize if you already are aware of these facts.

By Luz - 14 November 2015 Reply

14/10/2012 at 1:26 pmFirst off; extremely few paerps reported the alleged event. Second; the village was said to host some 40 people, not 2000 ( which frankly is a rediculus claim for an inuit settlement at that latitude). Third; There is absolutely no evidence that support the tale, exept for a story in Le Pas, Manitoba on November, 28th, 1930 by Emmett E. Kelleher, a journalist well known for fabricating stories.There is no mention of such an event in the RCMP records. Fact is they officially decleared it as a hoax.But most compelling evidence is probably the fact that the trapper that found the village, Joe Labelle, most most likely never was with 100-miles of Lake Angikuni. He originally hailed from the south of the Northwestern Territory, and was in fact considered a newcommer in the territory.

By Elin - 31 January 2015 Reply

The picture in this article, is it a confirmed picture of the Mad Trapper and if so, when and how was it snapped?