Trapping in the early part of the 20th century wasn’t an easy job, and for the trappers of Rat River, a strange newcomer wasn’t making things any easier. The stranger arrived in 1931 with a lot of cash and few words. He quickly built himself a small cabin in the middle of prime trapping land, and soon after, other trappers were finding that their own work was being sabotaged. The stranger, they believed, was setting off their traps so his own work had a better chance of getting the goods. The trappers complained to the local authorities who found that this unknown man had failed to apply for a trapping permit. On New Year’s Eve 1931, Constable Alfred ‘Buns’ King and Special Constable Joe Bernard headed to the stranger’s 8ft x 10ft home to have a word.
King and Bernard stood outside in the -40-degree weather trying to get the stranger to talk to them. The constables could see the man inside his home. The man was clean shaven and short, but clearly muscular. He spoke with an accent they believed to be Scandinavian, and he held a gun tight in his hand. The constables were pretty sure that the stranger wouldn’t have second thoughts about shooting them, so they returned to Aklavik to get a search warrant and some backup.
King and Bernard returned with three more men and the warrant. Once again, the stranger refused to open the door for them, and so King decided to break it down. Before King could start, the stranger fired a shot through the door, hitting King. The other constables pulled their weapons and opened fire on the cabin, still, the stranger refused to leave his home. Concerned for King’s health, the constables headed back to Aklavik.
On January 4, 1932, the authorities returned to the stranger’s cabin. This time there were nine of them, and they brought forty-two dogs and twenty pounds of dynamite with them. They didn’t bother knocking this time; instead, they tossed some of the dynamite through a window and took cover. When the dynamite blew, the cabin imploded. The posse was sure that the stranger had to be dead, but they still moved with caution. As they closed in on the destroyed cabin, the stranger stood up unharmed and holding a gun in each hand. For fifteen hours, the posse and the stranger exchanged gunfire, and for the third time, the stranger was able to repel the authorities. This short bastard wasn’t messing around.
Reports of the stranger holding off the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was spreading across the country, and radio stations gave him a name; The Mad Trapper of Rat River.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police returned to the destroyed cabin on January 14 but found that the Mad Trapper was gone. For two weeks, the police tracked the Mad Trapper as he headed further north. With nothing to protect him, with the temperature dropping to fifty below and through two blizzards, the Mad Trapper kept moving.
When the RCMP finally caught up to the Mad Trapper, he was ready for them. The Mad Trapper opened fire, shooting Constable Edgar Millen through the heart before climbing up a sheer cliff, his laughter filling the night air.
The Mad Trapper was smart – every step of the way he had the upper hand on the RCMP – but he was struggling to get away from the ever-growing posse. After the murder of Constable Millen, the posse grew to over a hundred men, including members of the Inuvialuit and Gwich’in tribes who knew the country better than the police. The Mad Trapper was fast, moving two miles for every mile the posse moved even though they had snow shoes and he didn’t. He was tricky too; he would backtrack, using his own snow prints to cover his path by walking through them again and creating two paths for the posse to follow. He kept quiet too, knowing that he if he used his gun to kill an animal, the sound would carry for miles, and the light of a fire would be seen by anyone looking for him. The Mad Trapper built temporary shelters in snowdrifts, collapsing them when he left.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were sure that the Mad Trapper was heading for the Yukon, and they knew their best chance at catching him was to stake out the only two paths to the area. The Mad Trapper, never one for the easy path climbed a seven thousand foot mountain in a blizzard to get around the blocked roads. It wasn’t until a pilot called him reporting to have seen footprints on the top of a mountain that the RCMP realized their target had evaded them.
Wilfrid Reid May was the type of hero that seemed to only exist in pulp magazines. Born in Manitoba, he was nicknamed Wop by his two-year-old cousin who couldn’t pronounce Wilfrid properly. The nickname stuck, and by the time Wilfrid joined the Royal Flying Corps during world War One, everyone called him Wop. By the end of the war, Wop had been promoted to captain and received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Most notable was his part in the death of the infamous Red Baron; while Wop himself didn’t take down the Red Baron, it was his battle with the Red Baron’s cousin that directly lead to the Red Baron’s demise.
After the war, Wop opened Canada’s first airfield and started up May Airplanes Ltd. with his brother. In 1924, Wop lost sight in one eye after it was hit with a chunk of metal in an accident; still, he refused to stop flying. He was, after all, a Canadian hero, not just for his service in the war, but for his part in capturing the murderer John Larson and saving the lives of the people in Little Red River, Alberta by flying the medication they needed to fight a diphtheria outbreak – the papers called Wop’s journey “The Race Against Death”.
It had been nearly a month since the manhunt for the Mad Trapper had begun, and the RCMP were no closer to catching him. If anything, the chances of capturing the killer of Constable Millen were getting lower every day. Since the Mad Trapper had made it into the Yukon, there had been no sight of him. Out of ideas, the RCMP called on Wop to use his plane and get a better look at the area.
Wop and his ski-equipped Bellanca monoplane joined the search on February 5. For over a week, Wop flew over the Yukon looking for any clue to the whereabouts of the Mad Trapper. On February 14, he found the first hint of the killer anyone had seen in weeks; Wop noticed a set of footprints on the frozen surface of the Eagle River – the Mad Trapper had been using caribou tracks to hide his own.
Two days after Wop’s discovery, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police caught up with the Mad Trapper. They spotted the stranger as they came around a bend in the Eagle River. The Mad Trapper was standing there, almost as if he was waiting for the police to arrive. A firefight broke out and, heavily outnumbered, the Mad Trapper tried to run, but without being able to use the caribou tracks, the snow slowed him down too much. The Mad Trapper was able to hit one of the constables before they took him down with a shot to the pelvis. Wop landed his plane and quickly took the injured constable to the nearest airport. The Mad Trapper bled out on the river bank. When they searched the body of the stranger they found over two thousand dollars in American and Canadian currency, a few gold rocks, a compass, a knife and razor, some fish hooks, a few nails, a dead squirrel, a dead bird, laxative pills, and teeth with gold fillings that may have once resided in the mouth of the stranger.
The RCMP strapped the body of the Mad Trapper to a sled and began their one-hundred-and-fifty-mile trek back to Aklavik, the posse growing smaller with each stop along the way. When they finally returned to Aklavik, photos of the stranger were taken and sent out across Canada and the United States in hopes of finding out who the man was. To this day, his true identity remains a mystery.