This meant that
Johnson was now wanted on a further charge and Inspector Eames,
RCMP, requested the Royal Canadian Signals personnel at Aklavik
to broadcast a request to Constable Millen at Arctic Red River for
him to report at once at the mouth of the Rat River. Meantime, the
Inspector had been preparing supplies, etc., to take another party
out, and this party, consisting of the Inspector, Constable McDowell,
Trappers Lang, Garland and Sutherland, accompanied by two native
guides, left Aklavik for the Rat River. Enroute, they picked up
some dynamite in the hope of being able to blow a hole in Johnson's
cabin should he refuse to come out. Constable Millen, having received
the message, was awaiting them at the mouth of the Rat River.
Preferring to arrive at Johnson's cabin from above, and following
the lead of a native who led them astray, two days were lost, the
native leading them in a triangle around the cabin all the time,
telling them "cabin only four miles." They made camp and
started over the mountain on foot, travelling a distance or 14 miles
before sighting the cabin. Trappers Garland and Lang circled the
cabin and ascertained that Johnson was still there but, being on
foot and having no supplies, they were forced to return the 14 miles
to their base. Early next morning, the camp was moved closer and
operations to entice Johnson to come out of his cabin were commenced.
The only reply received was rifle fire from the cabin, which was
apparently loopholed at all angles.
A glimpse at the interior showed that the cabin had been dug out
to a depth of about two or three feet. It was quite small, the roof
well-packed with earth about one foot in depth, and a small window
about a foot and a half by three feet. Later examination showed
that the base of the cabin had a double row of logs and earth packed
in between it. Thus nature, freezing the earth, substituted frozen
earth for concrete, the cabin presenting a veritable "pillbox".
For 15 hours, during which the entire party had many narrow escapes,
many attempts were made to have Johnson come out but without success,
and the charges of dynamite being poorly prepared and unconfined,
proved ineffectual. Supplies and dog feed, having run out, the party
was forced to return to Aklavik.
The RC Signals broadcast station was again pressed into service
and a request sent asking Dodman of the Hudson's Bay Company at
Arctic Red River to keep operations moving with dried fish up to
the mouth of the Red. A call was sent out asking for volunteers
and, the National Defence authority had been obtained. QMS Riddell
who has an enviable reputation in the north country as a hunter,
traveller, etc., and Staff Sgt Hersey of the RC Signals, were gladly
accepted by Inspector Eames.
EGGS" ARE MADE
Preparation for this expenditure was going ahead quickly, and QMS
Riddell again brought his ingenuity into practice in making what
he termed "goose eggs." The engine cylinders of an old
outboard motor were filled with gun powder, a half-minute fuse with
a length inserted to be cut as required, was fed up through the
intake port and then passed through a hole which had been drilled
in the cylinder wall. The gun powder was forced into a compact mass
and a two inch bolt passed through the cylinder head and then welded.
Thus, were the goose eggs created. Next some lengths I½ and
2 inch pipe were cut about 15 inches long, holes drilled on a bias
in the centre, the fuse fit snugly, a tin guard fitted along the
side to protect the last half-foot of fuse, the whole filled with
gun powder the ends squeezed tightly together and knitted and, to
make certain of a burst, lead then poured in. Another inspiration
was the filling of empty beer bottles with a mixture of gun powder
and sulphur. After a fuse had been inserted, the tops of the bottles
were tightly sealed and the bottles were then completely wrapped
with electrician's tape, the idea of this being that if a hole could
be blown in the cabin they could be heaved in to smoke the fugitive
It was considered communication for the base party with Aklavik
would be of real value in obtaining additional supplies, further
aid, or the doctor, if necessary. Signals personnel at Aklavik got
busy on this and constructed a low-power transmitter to work around
the amateur band using the Ever-Ready 108 field battery, and a 2l0B
tube. A receiver to use the same battery was also devised, working
on 55 and the broadcast band with dry cells as filament supply for
both. These were tested satisfactorily but the biggest job was to
secure everything as compact as possible for the rough riding in
toboggans, so that it would not fall apart when going over rough
At 2 a.m. on January 16th, Inspector Eames had everything ready,
and at 9 a.m. that morning the party, consisting of Inspector Eames,
Constable Millen, QMS Riddell, Staff Sgt Hersey, civilians Garland,
Noel, Verville and Carmichael were on their way.
On January 18th, having given the party in the hills time to reach
their base, Aklavik Radio Station commenced schedules, calling them
at 7,8, 9, and 10 p.m., listening the first ten minutes and calling
the next with plenty of time to get signals synchronized. VEF Aklavik
called them nightly on 55 meters and nothing was heard, so all available
information was passed along on the broadcast.
On January 23rd, Inspector Eames, Hersey and Carmichael returned
to Aklavik at 6 p.m. They reported that Johnson had left his cabin
and that high winds and drifting snows had erased any trail he left.
Natives had been used in the capacity of trackers, but had proved
useless and their only ability appeared to be in eating the party
out of supplies. Here one must remember that the native is very
superstitious, and searching for a "bad white man" --
well, it was not exactly the same as hunting caribou. They had,
therefore, been shooed off home and returned with the three men
mentioned above. Hersey said that owing to Johnson having left his
cabin, they were away from base from daylight until dark, to pick
up his trail, and for this reason many schedules were missed. This
also meant no fire in camp for long periods and the freezing batteries.
Then location was poor for short wave, being situated in a deep
chasm but when batteries had been thawed out, although the variation
in signal strength was great, they had been able to copy every transmission.
On January 28th, with a temperature of 47 below and a slight headwind,
Hersey and a native, each with a heavy load of supplies, set out
for the base now located "somewhere on the Rat River. "
The following day it was 49 below, again with wind, and on Saturday,
the 30th, when they passed the old base site, it was 36 below. They
continued a further 25 miles up the Rat to the new camp established
by the four who had remained behind.
In the meantime, Riddell, Millen, Garland and Verville had roamed
and combed the timber along the Rat during every minute of daylight,
trying to find some trace of Johnson. They found two caches, one
containing about half-a-ton of grub. These were left untouched as
a possible bait, and examined daily through field glasses in the
hope that he would endeavour to reach them and thus leave a trail
-but no luck. The party was now out of dog-feed and their supplies
consisted of a little tea, hard tack and bacon only. They had been
working in pairs, joining up at dusk on their way back to the base.
While waiting for the tea to boil, Riddell went wandering around
and coming upon a faint trail crossing glare ice followed it to
the top of ridge where he lost it. He circled for a while and came
across it again in a small creek. It appeared to be one or two days
old so he returned to notify the others. Next morning the party
set off on this trail, but as it was over hard, windswept ground,
it was often lost and picked up again only in the sheltered spots.
Thus they traced him through two or three old camps before finally
losing the trail altogether.
Verville and Riddell now headed in one direction and Millen and
Garland in another. By this time, Johnson's habits had become fairly
well known to them, that is, he was slowly but surely heading in
the direction of the Divide. He never crossed a creek unless on
glare ice. Invariably, he travelled the ridges which were hard-packed
and where the slightest wind erased his tracks. At times he even
used his pursuers' trail. When he was ready to camp he would strike
a creek at the head, continue down it until he reached timber and
having selected his camping place, would continue on in a circle,
back-tracking far enough so he could watch and see anyone on his
trail without being seen himself.
The party was forced to extend and travel continually in half circles,
trying to pick up his trail, and it was thus that Riddell and Verville
came upon a fresh trail leading up a small creek heading for the
"Bald" Hills. Here and there they came upon old quarters
of caribou, and reasoned he was short of grub and was away in search
of caribou. They divided, one on each side of the trail, fully expecting
to meet him returning, but after following the trail for some few
miles, it became obvious that he was making a huge circle and heading
in the general direction of his starting point.
They then cut across the hills and picked up his trail again, only
to lose it shortly afterwards. The half-circle method of travel
had once more to be adopted in the hope of picking up the trail.
Shortly afterwards, they came to a deep canyon and for the first
time saw the smoke from his campfire. Expert musher, trapper and
outdoor man, as Johnson proved to be, it is hardly necessary to
say he was using only poplar and willows for his fire, thus carefully
eliminating anything but a very thin haze of smoke. They drew level,
and from the top of the canyon could see his fire and tarpaulin.
While they could see these, though they watched carefully for two
hours, they caught not the slightest sign of Johnson himself. Their
travel had been strenuous and frost had gathered inside their fur
clothing. With dusk coming on they were frozen out and forced to
return to their camp.
Early Saturday morning, January 30th, they again started, in a severe
blizzard, straight across the hillside to cover the eight miles
to Johnson's camp. In figuring out the best way to approach, Riddell
and Garland travelled some distance along the ridge, got down to
the creek and took up a position about 15 or 20 yards from his camp.
From this position Riddell had a view of the side opening and part
of his tarp, while Garland had a clear view of the fire, presumably
without Johnson being aware of their presence. Verville and Millen,
seeing the others settled, started off for other positions, but
unfortunately one of them slipped, making considerable noise. Johnson
was heard to check his rifle and cough but his definite position
was not known. Verville got across an open spot but when Millen
followed, Johnson fired. Verville replied but without having actually
sighted Johnson. Johnson then moved for the first time, across his
fire and at the same time, crossing Garland's sights. Garland fired.
For two hours no sound or sign was noticed in Johnson's camp. Garland
thought he had hit him and it was decided to approach. Verville
went back to his original position about 60 feet away and with an
advantage in height. The others extended under a cut bank about
25 yards from the camp. Riddell was easing his way along the ridge
when he noticed something queer and in making for the cover of a
heavy spruce to take a closer look, a shot whistled by his head.
Verville could not see where this had come from, and Riddell, yelling
"look out", took a flying dive, hit the top of the bank,
and slid over in the deep snow out of sight.
MILLEN IS KILLED
Millen, in Riddell's rear, having spotted where Johnson was, dropped
to one knee and fired twice; Johnson replied with three shots, and
on the third Millen spun around and standing erect immediately fell
upon his face. Riddell, having worked his way to a new position,
now found that what he at first thought to look queer was the end
of Johnson's rifle protruding from a mound of some kind. The three
opened fire on this and Johnson withdrew his rifle. The question
now was to reach Millen and find out how badly he had been hit.
Riddell took up a position from where he could fire every time the
muzzle of Johnson's rifle showed. While Verville and Garland went
to Millen, Riddell's shots forced Johnson to keep his rifle under
and he was unable to fire. Being afraid Millen would freeze to death
if wounded and left where he had fallen, he was half carried and
half dragged under the cover of the cut bank. Here he was closely
examined and found to be dead.
Spasmodic firing was continued until dusk with no apparent results.
At this time, Millen's rifle was retrieved and, it being dark with
every advantage in Johnson's favour, they were forced to return
to their base.
Meanwhile, Hersey had returned with supplies, and the native accompanying
him, on hearing the report, immediately made off into the bush and
stayed there. With the exception of Hersey, the party was in bad
shape. Weather conditions had been miserable and the fact of their
having to stick to the trail made their duffells practically useless
through dampness. Their bed rolls and clothing were in the same
state. They had been on the go continually since January 16th and
it was quite apparent that they needed a short period of rest, sufficient
at least to get things dried out. Their radio equipment was 25 miles
away, and having been away from it so long, the batteries would
be frozen and it would therefore be useless.
After a meal, Riddell hitched up his team, and with a native who
had selected the best of his own and Millen's dogs, started for
Aklavik. This run was another record; Riddell covered over 100 miles
in bad weather, across country where there is 40 miles of bad trail
to every 15 miles of good and at a time immediately following a
blizzard when the trail was blown clear in spots and completely
buried in others, and reached Aklavik in 20 hours.
On February 2nd, everything was ready for another start from Aklavik.
A north wind, travelling between 30 and 45 miles per hour, made
it impossible to see further than 100 feet ahead; nevertheless the
party left Aklavik at noon. At 6:30 p.m. on this date, the radio
station picked up the Edmonton Journal station announcing that a
plane was being sent to assist in the search. Inspector Eames badly
wanted this information before leaving but could not afford to wait.
While carrying out the usual Tuesday evening broadcast programme
from Aklavik, a request was sent out to Blake at the Husky River,
or anyone at Fort McPherson, to send a team to meet the Inspector
at the Rat and give him this information. Shortly after this, Jack
Parsons came in and thinking he could catch the party before they
left Lang's place, hitched up and started at once. His intention
was to carry on until he caught up with them, so it was not certain
the Inspector would get the information. The radio station next
received a request from the Canadian Airways asking them to call
Good Hope to have two barrels of gasoline down at the best landing
place on the river. When one considers the extreme cold weather
and the fact that the engine of the plane failed, resulting in a
further loss of time, the value of the radio here is readily apparent.
On February 4th, it being considered that Riddell should have now
reached his base, Aklavik radio station opened the usual schedules
with him, sending progress of the plane, etc. This was sent blind
and no answer was received. Meantime, six white men had arrived
in Aklavik in answer to the call broadcast for volunteers, and were
standing by awaiting the Inspector's instructions.
PLANE PICKS UP TRAILS
The plane arrived at Aklavik on February 6th and this information
was immediately transmitted to the party on trail. Next day the
plane took off about noon, in dull and foggy weather, made contact
with some of the base party and landed Constable Carter, who had
come in from the outside to report to Inspector Eames. The plane,
having picked up trails which gave the impression Johnson was now
legging it for all he was worth, was able to give the base party
some valuable information. In the evening Aklavik called on the
usual schedules, giving them the information regarding the tracks
and also instructions to move the base up about 12 miles to the
"out" camp. Inspector Eames and Riddell were to meet the
plane at the same place as it had landed that day. For the first
time, Riddell remained in Camp the entire day and apparently was
not idle. He had worked with the transmitter, altered the aerial
from a "Zepp" to a "Hertzian," and on his first
call with this new aerial, Aklavik heard him with a steady R-6 note.
He acknowledged all information, but on replying, was found very
difficult to copy, signals being weak and fading very bad. However,
communication had been established and the pilot had the satisfaction
of knowing his information was received and he could not be certain
of establishing contact with the Inspector.
The plane took off from Aklavik at 10:30 a.m. the next day and on
his return, the pilot reported he had landed and met the party waiting
for him. He took Riddell up, showing him the trails and where they
seemingly ended abruptly. A closer examination disclosed a faint
trail at the head of the Barrier River circling to the right and
ending in some timber along the river, from where a distinct trail
could be seen joining Johnson's old trail.
There being no detailed maps of the country, we will endeavour to
describe what happened. From the party's camp, the Barrier River
runs parallel with the Divide (the mountains between the NWT and
the Yukon), its head being about 12 miles up from their camp. Having
worked clear of the canyon and a small patch of timber which the
party of four were searching when the plane first came over, Johnson
had travelled on the bald tundra for a while, until he hit the next
creek, going down this till he reached the Barrier River, then heading
straight up. Reaching the head of the river, he again took to the
tundra and hard packed snow, circled back on his trail till he came
to a small draw and some sparse timber where he camped for a time;
he then headed back to his old trail, and doubling this for a while,
he travelled up a creek leading to the Divide, and going on up to
the head, he parallel with the mountains and his old trail and headed
down another creek to strike his old trail again on the Barrier
River, about four miles from above his pursuer's camp. Before doing
this, he had evidently climbed to a high ridge and looked things
over very carefully. Once on his old trail again, he travelled up
the Barrier, and branching off up another creek, this time continuing
through a pass which was practically all glare ice, he headed down
to the Bell River on the Yukon side.
It is only a surmise, but it appears very likely that what he had
been endeavouring to do was to get back to timber and possibly his
cache, expecting to have circled around the search party. Coming
out where he did, leads one to believe that possibly he heard the
dogs, or may even have seen the smoke and then finding himself cut
off, made a desperate attempt to get over the Divide.
Owing to high winds, the plane could not take off on Tuesday, February
9th. On Wednesday the pilot tried to land in the hills, but terrific
winds which swept the snow to a height of a thousand feet made this
impossible, and he was forced to return to Aklavik. He made a further
attempt to get in with supplies in the afternoon but was again unsuccessful,
and was forced to land these supplies at the mouth of the Rat.
Thursday, February 11th, was fairly clear but high winds in the
hills made landing on a pinnacle near the party's camp impossible,
though this was attempted several times. Meantime, the ground party
had pieced Johnson's trails together bit by bit, and since high
winds had blown the hard-packed snow clear in many places, the difficulty
of this job will be appreciated. Constable May from Old Crow, two
civilians from La Pierre House, plus three natives, had now joined
the party. It was not practicable to maintain such a large party
in this country under the conditions existing, and Inspector Eames
was forced to reduce his numbers as he intended, as soon as further
supplies could be brought into him, to go over the Divide.
On February 12th, some of the party met the plane at the mouth of
the Rat River. While discussing their plans a team arrived from
above and reported an Indian (Peter Alexi) had arrived from La Pierre
House, having travelled 130 miles without a break. He reported a
strange trail on the Bell River, which one of the guides returning
from the Yukon River then identified as Johnson's. On receipt of
this information, arrangements were speedily completed for the party
from the Yukon. accompanied by Staff Sgt Hersey. Trappers Joe Verville
(just brought in by plane to replace his brother Noel who had a
severe cold), Peter and a native named Lazarus, to go over the Rat
River Portage with dog teams to La Pierre House. Inspector Eames,
Riddell and Garland came back to Aklavik by plane for further supplies
before going to La Pierre House. which they intended to reach by
plane in an attempt to intercept Johnson.
The plane left Aklavik on Sunday, February 13th, and arrived at
La Pierre House at noon on the same day. The trail was examined
both from the plane and the ground and, because Johnson's snowshoes
were home-made and had various peculiar features, the trail was
identified as his beyond doubt. Due to the high winds, glacier-like
terrain and the fact that the tundra was absolutely clear of snow
in places, his route over the Divide could not be located to within
a few hundred yards. He had certainly crossed the highest pinnacle,
going over at about 9,000 to 10.000 feet, and his trail was picked
up in the gently sloping hillsides leading down into the Bell River.
Having crossed the Divide, conditions of travel were now totally
different. Formerly the snow had been hard and all traces of trail
obliterated by high winds. It was now found that the snow was very
deep and soft with little evidence of much wind during the winter.
Except for places where he had taken off his snowshoes and travelled
on foot, in the tracks of a large herd of caribou, Johnson's trail
could be followed as he struck the Bell River and passed within
a mile and a half of La Pierre House.
On Sunday, February 14, visibility was good for about an hour only,
but during this time, the plane was able to follow his trail for
about 20 miles up the Bell River before losing it in the maze of
caribou tracks in the proximity of Eagle River.
On Monday, the trail was bad, due to deep soft snow, but good progress
was made by being able to make the portages instead of having to
follow the river, and so considerable distance was saved. The party
who had crossed the Divide arrived at La Pierre House at noon, having
made the trip in about three days. They carried ten days' provisions
for men and dogs, which constituted quite heavy loads. They immediately
headed up the Belt and joined the other party. In the meantime,
the pilot had returned to Aklavik for refuelling and to bring spare
The ground party, having successfully picked up Johnson's trail
here and there amongst the caribou tracks, were now headed up the
Eagle River and judging Johnson's trail to be about one and a half
days old, had camped early for the night, preparatory to an early
start and a long day's travel on Wednesday.
About 10:30 or 11 a.m. on Wednesday, February 17th, shortly after
the teams had overtaken the Inspector, Riddell and Garland, travelling
on foot had, owing to the deep snow, been able to keep ahead of
the teams until they reached a point where snow was packed by large
herds of caribou crossing and travelling along the river. They had
just rejoined the teams and had erected another marker to guide
the plane when they noticed Hersey grab his rifle from the toboggan
and dash for the opposite side of the river.
Hersey, driving the first team, when rounding another bend in the
river had spotted a man shoving his feet into snowshoes. The latter
immediately grabbed his rifle and hiding behind a point in the bend
of the river, made for the cover of the timber. Thinking it must
be Johnson, Hersey had grabbed his rifle as described, and the man
being more or less hidden from view, explains why Hersey was making
for the opposite bank. Joe Verville, driving the second team had
joined Hersey, and the word having been flashed back that Johnson
was right ahead, the party scattered for positions on each bank
of the river, though none of them, other than Hersey, had yet viewed
Johnson opened fire and Hersey dropped to one knee in the centre
of the River and returned his fire. Verville was close behind Hersey
and also opened fire. This apparently made it too hot for Johnson
and he was unable to reach the top of the bank and the timber. Hersey
was seen to come up on his knee and topple over, and it was figured
he had been hit. In the meantime, with the rest of the party coming
up fast, Johnson tried to reach the opposite bank, when he suddenly
dropped and burrowed in the deep snow. Many of the party were now
abreast of him and called to him: "Surrender, Johnson, this
is your last chance," but he made no answer and continued to
fire and the party, all now being in position, replied with rifle
fire and in a few minutes Johnson's fire ceased.
Joe Verville attended to Hersey, who, though conscious, was suffering
considerably from his knee, where he had been hit. Verville did
what he could for him and placed him in a sleeping bag to keep him
As this last fight started, the plane came in sight. The pilot circled
overhead, watching the shots; seeing no movement from Johnson, he
swooped low and then signalled that everything looked finished.
One of the ground party then advanced and found Johnson dead. He
was identified by Garland as the man whom they fought in the cabin
on the Rat; Garland was the only one present who had previously
The plane, having seen Hersey go down, landed immediately the fight
was over, and taxied within a few yards of him. Riddell and Frank
Jackson, from La Pierre House, had reached Hersey in the meantime
but there was nothing they could do for him. The pilot, Captain
W.R. "Wop" May pulled out his medical kit and administered
a sedative to ease Hersey's pain.
One reads many newspaper articles about the exploits of various
flyers and it is regrettable that little or nothing is heard of
the work performed by these Canadian aviators who fly through the
worst weather conditions, and in many cases at a moment's notice,
over Canada's Northland, In this case, the weather was thick, with
visibility practically nil, and on looking towards the hills, nothing
could be seen. Nevertheless, Captain May took off under these conditions
to carry the wounded man to a doctor who was 125 miles away, and
on the other side of the Divide. Heading in the general direction
where he knew an opening in the hills to be, he succeeded in finding
it, and 45 minutes after leaving Eagle River he had covered the
125 miles to Aklavik and had Hersey under the care of Dr. Urquhart,
who was assisted by Nurses McCabe and Brownlee.
None of the party, not even Hersey himself, had any idea he had
been hit other than in the knee. However, as he was undressed, it
was found that the bullet had glanced off the knee, travelled up
the left elbow, and continued up on into the chest. He suffered
greatly from shock, but the next day Dr. Urquhart was able to report
that he had located the bullet, just under the skin on the right
side of Hersey's back. and that Hersey was somewhat improved.
It is considered that Hersey's prompt action prevented Johnson from
gaining the top of the river bank and good cover. When joined by
Joe Verville the fire of both had forced Johnson to try to make
the opposite side of the river.
QMS Riddell again proved himself a man of the North country. It
was he who time and time again, picked up Johnson's trail after
it had been lost, and the endless miles he travelled in circles
when doing this, can be best imagined.
Why the newspapers dubbed Johnson as "mad" and "demented"
is hard to understand. Constable Millen and several white traders
had spoken to him in Fort McPherson the previous summer, without
noticing anything of this. After he shot King, he did not act in
the way a madman would. Rather, he displayed all the craft and experience
of a skilled trapper. To evade capture, he took the fullest advantage
of his knowledge of the country and its climatic conditions. Time
and again he had baffled men who had spent years in the country.
When one considers that the livelihood of such men depends on their
knowledge and skill, it will be seen that Johnson apparently had
full control of all his faculties.
As happens in most cases of this nature, he made one mistake, and
in the opinion of those who trailed him, it was his only mistake
and was practically forced upon him. This was his decision to go
over the Divide and into a valley of deep snow, where there was
little or no wind and practically no small game, such as rabbits,
ptarmigan, etc., on which he could subsist.
to Top of Page
Go to Wop May's account of the hunt.