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Death in the Wild – Carl McCunn

Tales of death and despair in the Alaskan wilderness are nothing new. Arguably, the most infamous case is that of Christopher McCandless, the inspiration of the book and movie, Into the Wild. One similar case of adventure turned tragic – one that didn’t receive as much recognition – is that of Carl McCunn, who died at just 35-years-old while waiting for a plane that never would arrive.

In March of 1981, McCunn paid a bush pilot to fly him to a remote lake around 225 miles northeast of Fairbanks, near the Coleen River in the Arctic Circle. He brought along 500 roles of film and photograph equipment to photograph the natural beauty of the tundra while camping. He also brought along two guns and 1,400 pounds of provisions; mostly rice and beans. He camped in the solitude of the wilderness and kept a journal to document his adventures. Early on in McCunn’s trip, he threw away five boxes of shotgun shells, believing that he had bought along too many.

Coleen River. Credit: grittygal.com

McCunn planned on staying in the wilderness from March until early August. In one journal entry, he wrote that he believed that he had arranged a flight back to civilisation in early August. As he eagerly awaited the plane, his supplies dwindled substantially. He thought back to the shotgun shells he disposed of months earlier: “Had five boxes and when I kept seeing them sitting there I felt rather silly having brought so many. (Felt like a warmonger.) So I threw all away… into the lake… but about a dozen… real bright,” he wrote. In an attempt to supplement his starchy diet, he attempted to catch fish with a net weighed with links of chain. He also ate rosehips, attempting to get the petals before the birds. McCunn’s concernment grew with the change of the season. As the temperature dropped and torrential rain fell from the skies, it soon dawned on him that nobody was returning to pick him up. “Come on, please…. don’t leave me hangin’ and frettin’ like this. I didn’t come out here for that,” read one journal entry.

Worried friends asked the Alaska State Trooper to check on McCunn as summer came to an end and McCunn still hadn’t returned home from his escapade. Trooper David Hamilton flew over McCunn’s camp and saw McCunn waving a red bag. He said he circled McCunn, who was waving in a “casual manner.” Believing this indicated that he wasn’t in danger, Hamilton flew away. McCunn wrote in his journal that he was elated when he saw the plane. However, this elation soon turned to frustration when McCunn looked at distress signals printed on the back of his hunting license and realised he had given the signal for “all okay, do not wait.”

Winter was fast approaching; the lake near McCunn’s tent froze over and snow now blanketed the land. By now, McCunn had run out of food and was salvaging partially eaten kills from hawks and other predators. In a desperate bid to stay alive, McCunn even ate tree bark. “Hands getting more frost bitten every day… fingertips and edges of hands numb and stinging,” read one distressing journal entry. McCunn soon started to think about suicide. In his journal, he wrote that he been praying to God to help him and that he didn’t want to commit suicide but knew that death was imminent. “Am burning the last of my emergency Coleman light and just fed the fire the last of my split wood. When the ashes cool, I’ll be cooling along with them,” read one journal entry.1 In another, he wrote that he had “chickened out once already,” and that “they say it doesn’t hurt…”

In November, McCunn considered attempting to walk to Fort Yukon which was approximately 75 miles away. Understandably, he rejected the idea. By now, he was suffering from frostbite and starvation. It’s safe to deduce he could barely walk one mile never mind 75. He wrote a letter to his father explaining how to develop his film if ever it was retrieved. “I’m frightened my end is near… If things get too miserable I’ve always got a bullet around. But think I’m too chicken for that. Besides, that may be the only sin I’ve never committed.”

Carl McCunn.

In February of 1982, Alaska state troopers found McCunn’s tent. Inside, they found his lifeless body; a suicide note was found alongside a driver’s license for identification. He had shot himself in the head in late November or early December. The note beside his body read “Dear God in heaven, please forgive me my weakness and sins. Please look over my family.” Rather than die a slow and agonising death from starvation or frostbite, McCunn decided to end his life.

In a coroner’s inquest, the pilot, Rory Cruikshank, was absolved of any responsibility after several witnesses testified that there were no specific arrangements made for McCunn to be picked up.

Footnotes:

  1. The Miami Herald, 15 December, 1982 – “Diary Records Misery, Suicide in the Wilderness”
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Tara White
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Tara White

What a tragedy and loss to mankind. A creative, intelligent, beautiful man gone too soon and in such a horrific ending. He was at his wits end…he knew death was imminent, but not one other person checked on him again to make sure? Why not!? Id love to see the last of his wildlife photography. RIP beautiful soul.

ric martin
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ric martin

carl was a good friend of my brother larry and me…and we, along with others, share in some part this defeat of a wonderful man.

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