SPOTLIGHT – Lucy and the Hunters of the Mad Trapper

A photo from 'Lucy and the Hunters of the Mad Trapper', the RCMP posse hunting for the Mad Trapper sets off from Aklavik.
A photo from ‘Lucy and the Hunters of the Mad Trapper’, the RCMP posse hunting for the Mad Trapper sets off from Aklavik.
Photo from Lucy and the Hunters of the Mad Trapper, by John Crawley
Photo from Lucy and the Hunters of the Mad Trapper, by John Crawley

Joe McWilliams

A book of Arctic adventure with that has a connection to the Lesser Slave Lake area sold so well last year it has gone into a second printing. Lucy and the Hunters of the Mad Trapper, by John Crawley, reached 7th place on the Edmonton Journal bestseller list last year.
Mr. Crawley is the son of the Lucy of the title and Rev. George Crawley, who served the Anglican parishes in High Prairie and Slave Lake in the 1940s. The book is available at the Slave Lake Visitor Information Centre.
Below is a review of the book, that appeared last year in the Slave Lake Lakeside Leader.
Here’s a story that deserved to be told: the Mad Trapper of Rat River saga, as experienced by Lucy Ball, a hospital matron in Aklavik, NWT when that weird Arctic episode took place, back in 1931 and ’32.
Much has been written about the Mad Trapper incident, and just when you think not much more could be said about it, along comes John Crawley with a memoir of his mother, in novelized form. Lucy Ball knew almost all the principals in the hunt for Albert Johnson, the mysterious and resourceful loner who killed one RCMP officer and wounded two others during a manhunt that lasted 53 days in the dead of the Arctic winter. But none of the other accounts ever mentions the gals at the Anglican mission hospital.
Const. Edgar ‘Spike’ Millen, it turns out, was a good friend of Lucy’s. He’d even proposed marriage to her, as being one of very few eligible females from ‘Up South’ in the area. She’d come for a four-year stint to serve at the Anglican mission in Aklavik, hoping she’d be teaching kids about Jesus. Much to her surprise and dismay, she found out she would actually be cooking, cleaning and otherwise looking after the hospital at the outpost on the Peel Channel of the Mackenzie River.
Even without crazy trappers, they were memorable years – worlds apart from anything young Lucy had experienced or even imagined growing up in a strict, Victorian-style home, mostly in Halifax. Becoming a missionary was her way of breaking out of that suffocating life.
She loved it. The work was very hard; the hours very long. The winters very long and the days very short. But there was an intense camaraderie among the people in Aklavik. They were tough, lively, well-motivated people for the most part. The small contingent of southerners included the members of the RCMP detachment, mostly hardy, decent farm boys in love with the land and the lifestyle. In the North, the author notes, to be regarded as ‘a good man in the bush,’ said volumes about a person. To be ‘a good traveler,’ said even more. Travelling in the Arctic in winter meant long distances, with dog teams, in brutally harsh conditions. If a blizzard blew in while you were out on the trail, you needed to know how to keep yourself and your dogs alive. Those who weren’t ‘good travelers,’ didn’t last long.
One who was as good and dedicated a public servant as you could hope for was RCMP Const. Robert ‘Mac’ McDowell. He was Lucy’s first love – the fellow who met and escorted her off the boat when she arrived at Aklavik in 1929. He was also the officer who ran 20 hours behind the dogsled hauling the wounded Const. Alfred ‘Buns’ King back from an early encounter with the man who called himself Albert Johnson. Lucy was at the hospital when they arrived – King, half dead in the sled, bleeding from a gunshot wound through the chest, McDowell collapsing from exhaustion and dehydration, his lead dog outside dying from the effort of that epic pull.
Lucy was also there when Const. Millen’s body was brought back to Aklavik. It lay in cold storage for the duration of the hunt for the Mad Trapper. Lucy visited her friend Spike every day, promising she would never forget him or let the world forget him. Many years later, this promise resulted in a rather alarming and funny (at least after the fact) encounter with Edmonton Mayor Jan Reimer. Having found Const. Millen’s memorial (just off Fort Rd. in Edmonton) in a bad state of upkeep, Lucy – then in her eighties – stormed into Reimer’s City Hall office, banged her umbrella on the desk and demanded that the city do something. The next thing she knew, serious men with large guns were handcuffing her. She got what she wanted, though: the city put some effort into cleaning up the memorial to her late friend Spike Millen.
Lucy was due to get her wish – to teach children at a community called Shingle Point – after completing her four-year commitment at the Aklavik hospital. But on her way south on leave, she was asked to escort a group of Inuit children to a residential school in Hay River. According to Crawley, the experience convinced her that removing children from their families was not something she wanted to be part of. As it turned out, she met her husband-to-be, Tony Crawley, on the boat heading south from Fort Chipewyan, where he was the Anglican minister. The book concludes with their brief romance and marriage – a nice love story on top of everything else. Tony (Rev. George) Crawley served as the Anglican pastor in Slave Lake and High Prairie in the 1940s.
This story has every right to be regarded alongside the best of the Arctic tales. The first edition needs a bit of cleaning up, but as only 250 copies were printed, Crawley should have a chance of that fairly soon.

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