Albert Johnson header.

A Cabin





Despite ex-policeman Blake's concern, Albert Johnson was a resolute, determined man of unusual strength and stamina casehardened to back-breaking work, loneliness and isolation; and with fanatical confidence in his own ability to handle any situation. Traversing the difficult country behind the post, packing both load and heavy canoe alone over the rocky portages, he managed to reach the mouth of the Rat River. There was about his behaviour a distinct trace of the messianic complex; wherein a man lives according to his own code of ethics and laws; wherein he feels his line of action is right and brooks no interference from other human beings. In short, he acted as if he were God, with a rigid determination to follow his own course of action despite what others did.

A few miles above the mouth of the Rat River was a junction with Driftwood Creek. This junction was marked by a series of severe rapids so dangerous to craft that during the gold rush days of 1898, many a canoe and outfit had been destroyed and flung useless and broken onto the river banks. The gold miners had dolefully dubbed that section "Destruction City".

Successfully negotiating this treacherous stretch single-handed, Johnson continued up the Rat River to a point some 15 miles from its confluence with the south branch of the Husky. Here, choosing a wooded promontory of land bounded on three sides by the river, he began the construction of a cabin.

Like his other known behaviour, the construction of the cabin reflected his isolationist personality. First he excavated a hole some 3 feet in depth and approximately 8 by 12 feet. Around this he built walls of logs, some 12 inches in diameter, to a height of 5 feet. Because few of the available trees ran straight, there were large chinks in the walls and roof, and these he plugged with dirt. The roof, poles covered with heavy layers of sod to a depth of 2 feet, sloped from 5 feet in the front - which faced the peak of the promontory - to 4 feet at the rear.

On the side facing the point of the triangle, Johnson constructed a small 12 inch square, window, and beside it a door only large enough for him to enter and leave through. The left wall of the cabin, which faced an open clearing between the house and river bank was reinforced against the wind by an additional wall some 20 inches high.

Heating and cooking facilities were supplied by a light, tin-can type of stove.

All in all, it was a hole into which a man could crawl.

While much has been written about the "fort-like" construction of Albert Johnson's cabin, and while many have insinuated that it was built to withstand attack, it is much more probable that the design and structure was dictated by the availability of material, the severity of Arctic winters, and the fact that he was working alone. Also, it seems probable that Johnson intended this to be a permanent structure, unlike so many cabins in the Territories which were designed for only temporary, summer use.

A cautious man, Johnson kept only a portion of his supplies in the cabin and, apparently guarding against the possibility of fire, concealed the remainder in a cleverly designed "stage cache" some 300 yards from his cabin. A stage cache usually consisted of a wooden platform suspended in the short, stubby trees.


Trouble?

Despite his strange, retiring nature, the presence of Albert Johnson in the district drew no unusual attention from the Mounted Police. During a routine patrol to Fort McPherson in August, Constable Roland Melville followed up on Constable Millen's original inquiry and learned of Johnson's departure and his visit with Arthur Blake at the Husky trading post.

There were many unordinary men in the area like old George Lux, who at 84 lived alone in a cabin some 50 miles from Aklavik, and had all the independence of a crusty old porcupine. In November 1929, he injured his right eye while chopping wood. Too weak to attempt the winter journey alone, he suffered excruciating pain and was on the verge of committing suicide when a passing Loucoux Indian carried word to Aklavik of his plight. Constable R. G. McDowell, one of the fastest dog-team men in the area, made a flying mercy trip to bring the old timer to the hospital at Aklavik. Once cured, George Lux went back to his solitary cabin.

The north was a land of live and let live. If a man wanted to be alone - no one bothered him. It was a land where men threw up a temporary cabin, used it for a time and then abandoned it to move on - perhaps to better-hunting grounds or perhaps impelled by some inner restlessness. Except for the Indians, who roved in small groups, the inhabitants put plenty of distance between them and their nearest neighbour. Occasionally the loneliness or the depression brought on by continued exposure to sub-zero weather created periods of mental illness and on these occasions it fell to the lot of the Police to rescue the unfortunate man or woman from the consequences of this wilderness-imposed reactive insanity.

Here and there a woman, following her man like Ruth of old, shared the crude, dangerous life of the North West Territories.

Albert Johnson fitted into this basic pattern - except for one small detail. While he wanted to be left alone, he made the mistake of interfering with others.

Towards the middle of December 1931, while following his trap lines, Albert Johnson found that some Loucoux Indians from the Rat River district had set trap lines near his. True to his peculiar mental set, he simply removed them. While a disturbed, angry man might have destroyed the alien traps in a rage, Johnson slung them over the limb of a tree — almost like a warning - and proceeded on his way.

The Indians, faced with his warning signal, decided to report the matter to Constable Edgar Millen at Arctic Red River, even though it meant a mid-winter trek of 70 miles.


Ignored

On December 26, 1931, Boxing Day, Constable Edgar Millen dispatched Constable Alfred W. King and Special Constable Joseph Bernard - his complete force - to investigate the complaint and also to ascertain whether Johnson had obtained a trapper's license. During his July interview with Johnson, Millen had advised him to obtain a license, but it did not appear that he had obtained one from either Aklavik or Arctic Red River.

Constable King, a quiet, efficient young man from a wealthy family in Montreal, who had joined the force on July 10, 1926, and volunteered shortly thereafter for northern duty, left at 7:00 a.m. on Boxing Day in pitch blackness with Bernard and a dog team. It was bitterly cold.

Reaching Fort McPherson that night, they spent the night in comfort, but the following night they had to camp at the mouth of the Rat River in the open in 30-below weather.

On the morning of December 28th, they broke camp in darkness, planning to arrive at Johnson's cabin just after dawn - which came at 10:00 a.m. Following the twisting, frozen river, they covered the remaining 15 miles before dawn.

Arriving at the isolated cabin, which was 70 miles by dog team from the Arctic Red River and 80 miles from Aklavik, King and Bernard left their dog team on the frozen Rat River and climbed the steep, 5-foot-high river bank to the clearing. A wisp of smoke from the chimney and the presence of a pair of crude homemade snowshoes beside the squat door told them that Johnson was either home or close by.

Constable Alfred King rapped on the door, but there was no response. He continued to knock, announcing that he was a police officer and that he wanted to speak to the occupant. Still, there was no reply.

In a land where doors were never locked and where any traveller was welcome - for a while - Johnson's conduct was not only unusual it was hostile, hinting of either mental illness or hatred.

The two policemen spent nearly an hour at the cabin, knocking and trying to persuade Johnson to admit them, but the man, untrue to the hospitality of the north, refused even to acknowledge their presence. At one point, while standing at the door, King saw Johnson watching him from the nearby window. When King looked that way, Johnson immediately dropped the crude curtain over the window. He acted as if they were a nuisance and he was a patient man waiting for them to inevitably go away.

Finally, retiring to their sled, the two policemen debated the situation. Even allowing for the peculiarities of isolation, Johnson's conduct was not that of a man who had simply removed some traps and hung them carefully on a tree; nor even that of a man hunting without a license. There was a hint of depression about it that might indicate the onset of mental illness, but there was also an arrogance about it that spelled trouble. No matter how much a man desired to be left alone, certain courtesies had to be extended to visitors . . .

With no way of communicating with Constable Millen at Arctic Red River, the two men decided to proceed to Aklavik and report to Inspector Eames at Headquarters for instructions.


McDowell and King.
Constable R. G. McDowell - Constable Alfred King.



Violence

At Aklavik, Inspector A. N. Eames shared the concern of Constable King over the unfriendly behaviour of the man called Albert Johnson. From the meagre information gleaned by Constables Millen and Melville, he knew the newcomer was taciturn and independent to the point of rudeness, but this current act of "dumb insolence" seemed to indicate that Johnson was determined to maintain his independence of all men, authorities included.

Arming Constable King with a search warrant, Inspector Eames reinforced his party with the addition of Constable Robert G. McDowell, a veteran Arctic policeman, and Special Constable Lazarus Sittichiulis.

Leaving Aklavik in the pitch blackness at 7:00 a.m. on December 30, the four men carried a special issue of rifles in addition to their side arms, and after an overnight camp on the trail, they reached the Johnson cabin at 10:30 a.m. on December 31, 1931.

Once again a wisp of smoke and snowshoes beside the door indicated the presence of the man they had come to know as Albert Johnson. Leaving his companions on the river bed, below the steep bank, Constable King crossed the clearing and walked to the cabin some 20 yards from the river.

Constable King rapped on the door and called: "Are you there, Mr. Johnson?"

Scarcely had he uttered the question than Albert Johnson fired blindly through the closed door.

Stunned by the impact of the 30-30 rifle bullet which caught him full in the chest, King slumped to the frozen ground. A wave of disbelief shuddered over the three men on the river below, and then, suddenly realizing that the fallen policeman was fully exposed to a follow-up attack, Constable McDowell snatched his Lee-Enfield rifle from the sled and opened fire on the cabin - hoping at best to disable the man inside or failing that to distract his attention from the constable lying outside the cabin door.

The attack was successful and Albert Johnson switched his attention to McDowell and the two special constables. His first shot was wide, but his second narrowly missed McDowell, who was standing exposed, pumping shots into the log walls.

With a supreme effort and superb presence of mind, Alfred King dragged himself around the end of the cabin, struggled to his feet and staggered towards the scanty clump of trees on the right side. Reaching their relatively more adequate protection, he slid down the embankment to the snow-crusted river.

Seeing that King had reached safety, Constable McDowell, keeping below the man-high river bank, reached King's side. Seeing that the policeman's condition was gravely serious, he cleared his sled and placed the wounded man on it. Jettisoning most of the supplies from both rigs and keeping down behind the bank until they were out of rifle shot, McDowell raced for Aklavik with Special Constables Bernard and Sittichiulis bringing up the rear.

In the dramatic race for life across the frozen wastes of the northland, Constable King could hardly have had a better man on the toboggan than McDowell. Born in Winnipeg, McDowell had joined the Force on April 25, 1927, and had spent most of the intervening years in the Arctic. The previous year, 1930, on the mail run from Aklavik to Baillie Island, McDowell had made fantastic day marches of 50, 60 and 65 miles as a matter of routine. Now, with an emergency on his hands, McDowell drove himself, the dogs and the two Special Constables mercilessly.

When darkness fell, he pushed on, guiding the heavy toboggan carefully and accurately across the rough terrain of tundra and snow. At times, the two Indians had to run ahead of the sled, breaking trail for the labouring dogs and at others they followed, straining to keep up with the gruelling pace set by the master sledman. Fortunately, King's wound was a clean one, with very little bleeding, so the main dangers stemmed from shock, fatigue and the intense cold.

The 80-mile trip, which normally took two days, was accomplished in 20 unbelievable hours. The McDowell party arrived at Aklavik at 7:00 a.m. on January 1, 1932, and the wounded constable was immediately placed in the hospital under the expert care of Assistant Surgeon J. A. Urguhart.

It was found that the bullet had passed within an inch of King's heart and had penetrated in a straight line through the body. Had not King been bending over as he knocked on the cabin door; had not Johnson been firing from a position below ground level, the bullet would have undoubtedly ranged upwards through the constable's chest, causing instant death.





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