There’s nothing pretty about an 80-year-old corpse.
“Nobody was really ‘hot’ in favour of exhuming him, certainly not people beyond a certain age,” said Carrie Gour, producer of the Discovery Channel’s Hunt for the Mad Trapper.
“Exhuming bodies is squeamish stuff in any community, regardless of culture,” she said.
Back in 2007, Gour was in Aklavik, NWT, trying to convince locals to exhume the body of Albert Johnson, the legendary Mad Trapper of Rat River. Using forensic analysis of the body, producers hoped to shed light on the mysterious outlaw who, in 1931, led the RCMP on a 240-kilometre chase through the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.
When Johnson was finally killed by nine police bullets, little was known about the man who had evaded capture for almost two months in the harsh Arctic wilderness.
Whitehorse-based filmmaker Dennis Allen was also in Aklavik shooting for APTN when he ran into Gour on the street.
Unable to garner community support for the project, the producer looked “lost,” said Allen.
“I basically hired myself on the spot,” he said.
Originally hailing from the remote NWT community, Allen had considerable sway with town representatives and elders.
Digging up the Trapper was not a new idea, and Aklavik was used to turning away shovel-wielding TV crews.
But Allen and Gour’s approach was different. Their documentary promised to show the First Nation side of the Mad Trapper story.
“We will not just come in and ‘take’ something and leave; we will work with the community to do this in a way that is respectful and an ‘exchange,’” wrote Gour in a March, 2006 journal entry.
Still, community elders were hesitant to dredge up a violent chapter of Northern mythology.
“Oldtimers were saying, ‘Forget about it, the guy doesn’t deserve any attention, he’s a murderer,’” said Allen.
Further complicating matters, there were suspicions the Trapper had been buried along with two suicides from the community.
Disturbing Johnson was one thing, but disturbing the other bodies was “another thing altogether…,” wrote Gour in early 2007.
The producers hoped the benefits of exhuming Johnson would outweigh the “discomfort.”
For one, identifying the body could provide closure for people that suspected a family tie to the Trapper.
“Elders respected that people want closure despite what he did, so eventually they granted permission,” said Allen.
Examining only Johnson’s teeth, scientists were able to reveal that the mysterious outlaw had origins in either the United States or Scandinavia.
After adult teeth grow in, the tooth enamel is soft and absorbs particulates from the air. The particulates become trapped when the enamel hardens, creating a microscopic environmental time capsule.
By drilling into the enamel and examining the particulates, scientists can tell where a person spent their childhood.
“It allows you to say, for example, ‘We know that this person was raised in Northern Manitoba,’ so then you can go and look at missing persons reports from Northern Manitoba,” said Gour.
Johnson was initially thrown into the ground without ceremony in a simple pine box.
If the Trapper was going to be exhumed, said community members, it should be done with a level of “ceremony, religiosity and solemnity that he didn’t have the first time,” said Gour.
“We were asked to do prayers before bringing him out of the ground, and then when we reinterred him, to give him a proper burial,” said Gour.
On Boxing Day, 1931, two RCMP constables went to the home of Johnson, a mysterious individual who had been accused of tampering with nearby traplines.
After officers tried repeatedly to contact Johnson, he responded with a shotgun blast through the front door of his cabin, wounding one of the constables.
RCMP officers quickly rounded up a posse of officers.
Over the next 48 days, Johnson survived a dynamite attack on his cabin, killed one RCMP officer, wounded another and evaded his pursuers for 240 kilometres.
Johnson was finally killed by police gunfire close to the Eagle River.
Viewed by au audience of millions, the special will “shine a spotlight” on the Mackenzie Delta region where the manhunt took place, said Gour.
‘We’re hoping that Aklavik will get some spinoff from the attention,” said Allen.
Producers contributed a “leave-behind” fund, which the community of Aklavik put towards launching a website showcasing the Mackenzie Delta region.
“It’s a real way to leverage the publicity from the documentary,” said Gour.
Hunt for the Mad Trapper airs Thursday at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.
Contact Tristin Hopper at