Case of the deadly walrus: Churchill Mountie only officer killed on duty by wild animal

Case of the deadly walrus: Churchill Mountie only officer killed on duty by wild animal

Being an RCMP officer is a dangerous line of work, fraught with unpredictable situations like armed criminals, drug smugglers, harsh environments, high-speed chases and angry … walruses?

The latter might sound light-hearted but only one Mountie in the history of Canada’s national police force, dating back to 1873, has died on duty due to a wildlife attack. And the offender wasn’t the typical predator we associate with the wilds of this vast country — bears, cougars, wolves.

In 1908, Ralph Morton L. Donaldson ​was a sergeant with what was then called the North West Mounted Police. (Courtesy RCMP Veterans’ Association)

On Aug. 14, 1908, a sergeant posted in the northern Manitoba detachment in Churchill met his fate at the tusks of a non-too-pleased walrus.

The image many people associate with the roly-poly mammals is that of them lazily lounging on rocky shorelines or being fed fish in a theme park sideshow. When they move, bouncing awkwardly on bellies and flippers, they hardly look threatening.

But meet them in the water when they feel threatened and you’re not much of a match.

According to Walrus Facts, they can swim as fast as 35 km/h. Known as northern giants, they weigh up to 1,500 kilograms on average and grow to be more than three metres in length with fang-like tusks that extend another metre.

The largest walrus ever recorded was five metre long and weighed 2,268 kilograms.

In 1908, Ralph Morton L. Donaldson ​was a sergeant with what was then called the North West Mounted Police. He was in charge of a patrol to bring supplies to the Cape Fullerton detachment northwest of Hudson Bay in what is now Nunavut.

A kayaker gets up close and personal a walrus in Bay Bulls,N.L. (Submitted by Jim Walsh)

Donaldson left Churchill with Cpl. F. W. Reeves, special Const. H.T. Ford and two Inuit guides, Pook and Tupearlock, when nasty weather forced them to hunker down in a cove on Marble Island, near Rankin Inlet, according to Mark Gaillard, executive officer with the RCMP Veterans’ Association

After some time and needing food, Ford went out on a dinghy and found a herd of walrus on a small island a kilometre away. He returned to the cove to let the others know.

Donaldson, Reeves and Ford rowed back to the island to butcher some animals for meat. As darkness fell, Donaldson and Reeves headed back to the cove for Pook and Tupearlock.

Donaldson would never make it.

The dinghy was attacked by a walrus that rammed its tusks through the hull. The boat filled quickly and both men soon found themselves in the frigid water.

Reeves called out to Donaldson in the dark but got no reply.

Reeves made it to shore and a search party scoured the area for several weeks without ever finding Donaldson, whose name is now inscribed on the RCMP Honour Roll in “Depot” Division in Regina.

Sgt. Donaldson’s name is inscribed on the RCMP cenotaph at “Depot” Division in Regina. (Sheldon Boles)

Ray Johnson, 87, a retired RCMP officer living in Winnipeg, is not surprised in the least by the walrus attack.

He spent years working in the north, including postings in Whitehorse, Hay River, Fort Smith, Yellowknife, and Pond Inlet on Baffin Island.

“They’ll come along and hook those tusks over the edge of your boat and flip you into the water. They can be pretty angry, I know that,” Johnson said. “In fact, I think they’re the most dangerous animal in the Arctic.

“They’re huge — I couldn’t fit one in my living room, I’ll say that. Of course, you can stay away from them on land, they can’t move very fast there.”

Johnson travelled the far-flung region by dogsled, spending nights in igloos as he trekked the territory, visiting Hudson Bay posts and many remote communities, delivering medicine since there were no nurses at that time.

He also faced blinding storms and would wake in in the morning to find his dog team huddled, but safe, under a blanket of fresh-fallen snow outside the igloo.

Despite the conditions he encountered, Johnson says, his time in the Arctic Circle was his favourite posting in a 35-year career. It’s a beautiful place, as long as you know what you’re doing, he says.

“Our livelihood depended on us being careful.”

Published at Sun, 12 Aug 2018 07:00:00 -0400