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Carl McCunn, The Tragic and Desperate Story of an Explorer

Carl McCunn made a fatal error in communication that cost him his life
Carl McCunn made a fatal error in communication that cost him his life

Carl McCunn, an American wildlife photographer, tragically found himself marooned in the vast Alaskan wilderness and ultimately succumbed to suicide due to depleting his provisions. Accounts of tragedy and desolation in the frigid northern regions have long been part of Alaskan folklore.

However, few individuals have documented their fatal expedition as vividly as Carl McCunn.

On February 2nd, 1982, when a state trooper opened the tent, he discovered the emaciated body of Mr. McCunn, along with a diary that chronicled his suffering until he ended it by taking his own life with a rifle.

In his writings, the 35-year-old McCunn expressed the belief that the act would bring him relief as he faced death in a desolate camp near an unnamed lake in a remote valley located 225 miles northeast of Fairbanks.

His original intention had been to photograph the expansive tundra, but he had failed to make concrete plans for his return flight, leaving him stranded and without provisions.

The diary, comprising 100 pages of looseleaf paper, initially depicted the marvels of an emerging summer in meticulous block letters. However, eight and a half months later, it concluded with the frenzied scribbles of a forsaken soul afflicted by frostbite, desperately scavenging the partially consumed remains left by foxes.

The diary eventually found its way to the coroner’s office, where the details of Mr. McCunn’s ordeal unfolded during an inquest. The final page bore his words: “I am burning the last of my emergency Coleman light and have just fed the fire the last of my split wood. As the ashes cool, I will be cooling alongside them.”

This is the story of Carl McCunn, and what really happened to him.

Who Was Carl McCunn?

Carl McCunn was born in Munich, Germany, where his father was stationed as part of the United States Army. Carl was raised in San Antonio, Texas, following his birth, and completed his high school education in 1964.

A picture of Carl McCunn

A picture of Carl McCunn

However, instead of pursuing higher education, he enlisted in the United States Navy, serving four years before his discharge in 1969. After a brief stint in Seattle, Washington, Carl eventually made Anchorage, Alaska, his home in 1970, establishing a settled life there.

Carl McCunn Travels to Alaskan Wilderness and Makes a Terrible Mistake

In 1976, Carl McCunn spent a duration of five months living in the Brooks Range. Then, in March 1981, he engaged the services of a bush pilot to transport him to a remote and unnamed lake situated approximately 225 miles (362 km) northeast of Fairbanks.

This location was about 40 miles (64 km) west of the Coleen River and 150 miles (240 km) north of Fort Yukon, Alaska, on the Brooks Range’s southern periphery. McCunn’s purpose for this journey was to undertake wildlife photography over a period of approximately five months.

For this expedition, Carl arrived equipped with 500 rolls of film, 1,400 pounds (640 kg) of supplies, two rifles, and a shotgun. However, assuming he would not require them, he prematurely discarded five boxes of shotgun shells into the river near his camp. Initially, he was captivated by the presence of local wildlife as they returned to their summer habitats.

Despite believing that he had made arrangements with a pilot friend for his return in August, it appears that Carl McCunn had never actually confirmed this arrangement. Initially, McCunn had hired an air taxi service to transport him to the remote location, fully expecting his friend to pick him up later, as he lacked the financial means to cover the return air taxi service cost.

However, McCunn made the mistake of neglecting to inform his friend about hiring the air taxi service in the first place.

The pilot of the inbound air taxi later testified that they had received instructions that McCunn would be picked up by his friend before the onset of winter using a float plane. As the weather turned colder and his supplies dwindled in early August, with no sign of the expected plane, McCunn lamented in his diary, “I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure. I’ll soon find out.”

Evidently, McCunn’s pilot friend had informed him that he might be working in Anchorage towards the end of summer and could not guarantee assistance. Additionally, the pilot’s friend stated that McCunn had given him money for plane repairs and for the flight into the remote location but not for the return journey.

Furthermore, McCunn’s campsite was situated off the regular air traffic route, making it unlikely for any planes to pass by on a regular basis.

By mid-August, it became evident to Carl McCunn that his pilot friend would not be coming to retrieve him. In an effort to extend his dwindling provisions, he resorted to hunting local games, such as ducks and muskrats.

He also attempted to dry the meat of a caribou that had perished in the lake. Despite the relatively warm temperature above 60 °F (16 °C), constant rainfall and southward winds added to the challenging conditions.

At this point, McCunn’s diary revealed his hope that his family or friends would send a search party for him when he failed to return as planned. He had sent three maps, marking his campsite, to some friends and his father. However, he had not provided a precise itinerary.

Although his father knew he would be in the area, he was unaware of McCunn’s intended return date. McCunn had instructed his father not to worry if he did not return at the end of the summer, as he might extend his stay if circumstances allowed.

Concerned about McCunn’s delayed return from a previous trip, his father had contacted the authorities, but McCunn had requested that his father refrain from doing so again. McCunn’s friends testified during the inquest that they were not concerned as they believed he had already returned and was working in Paxson.

Carl McCunn’s Situation Gets Worse

In late August, an Alaska State Trooper flew over the lake where McCunn’s campsite was located. From the air, the trooper observed McCunn casually waving his orange sleeping bag, giving no indication of distress. On the third pass, the trooper spotted McCunn walking back to his tent. Based on these observations, the trooper did not perceive any need for assistance and testified accordingly.

McCunn later wrote in his diary, expressing his recollection of raising his right hand in a fist-pumping gesture during the plane’s second pass. Unbeknownst to him, this was a signal indicating “ALL OK – DO NOT WAIT!” He blamed himself for the situation, feeling like a clumsy fool and understanding why no help had arrived.

Subsequently, while digging a shallow trench to prepare for winter, McCunn stumbled upon a small cache of supplies, including rabbit snares and a few remaining bits of candles. He searched for firewood away from his campsite, wanting to leave the land undisturbed.

Location of McCunn's final campsite in Alaska

Carl McCunn’s starved for months in the Alaskan wilderness, until he called it quits.

However, as time passed and the weather grew colder, McCunn became increasingly fearful that his end was near. He contemplated possibly ending his life with a bullet but hesitated and regarded it as a sin he had not committed.

A State Trooper who had interacted with McCunn before his trip and assisted in marking his campsite on a map mentioned the presence of a hunting cabin located 5 miles (8.0 km) from McCunn’s campsite. It remains unclear why McCunn did not utilize the cabin as the weather deteriorated.

Eventually, snowfall commenced, and the lake froze over. The game became scarce, leading McCunn to set snares for rabbits. However, his traps were frequently raided by wolves and foxes. By November, McCunn had depleted his food supply. He contemplated walking approximately 75 miles (121 km) to Fort Yukon but could not do so due to heavy snow and his weakened physical condition.

The extended period of cold weather drained his energy and motivation. Additionally, frostbite on his hands impaired his dexterity, rendering him unable to set effective snares. By Thanksgiving, he experienced dizzy spells and constant chills, further worsening his situation.

The Tragic Death of Carl McCunn

Shortly thereafter, McCunn made the tragic decision to end his own life. He utilized the remaining fuel supplies to create a warm fire. In his diary, he expressed a plea to God for forgiveness for his weakness and sins and requested divine protection for his family.

McCunn wrote a letter to his father, providing instructions on how to develop his film, and requested that all his personal belongings be given to his father by whoever discovered him. He even suggested that the person who found him could keep his rifle and shotgun as compensation.

McCunn attached his Alaska driver’s license to the note and, using his rifle, took his own life. Just before committing suicide, he wrote in his diary, “They say it doesn’t hurt.”

By January 19, McCunn’s friends grew concerned and requested authorities to initiate a search for him. However, inclement weather prevented search efforts until January 26, when a state trooper flew over McCunn’s campsite.

Despite the frigid ambient temperature of −46 °F (−43 °C), no signs of life were observed. On February 2, 1982, a plane equipped with skis, carrying several state troopers, landed at the lake to investigate McCunn’s campsite.

After cutting open his zipped-shut tent, they discovered his emaciated and frozen corpse and his 100-page diary. A coroner’s inquest took place in July 1982.

McCunn’s father, Donovan, granted Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter Kris Capps access to the diary and two rolls of film. The San Antonio Light subsequently published excerpts from McCunn’s diary in December 1982.

Wilderness photographer, Carl McCunn, shown in what is believed to be one of the last photos of him tells in a diary of his last days of starvation and freezing cold in Alaska

Wilderness photographer, Carl McCunn, shown in what is believed to be one of the last photos of him tells in a diary of his last days of starvation and freezing cold in Alaska

The Following are some diary excerpts written by Carl McCunn

I keep thinking of all the shotgun shells I threw away about two months ago. Had five boxes and when I kept seeing them sitting there, I felt rather silly for having brought so many. (Felt like a warmonger.) So, I threw all away … but about a dozen … real bright. … Who would have known I might need them to keep from starving?

Certainly, someone in town should have figured something must be wrong—me not being back by now. But then again, there’s probably no one in town who gives a —. What in the hell do those people think I gave them maps [of my camp location] for? Decoration?

Unfortunately [the airplane] was on wheels and couldn’t land, so I stopped waving after its first pass. I then got busy packing things up and getting ready to break camp. As sunset approached, I began to doubt if the pilot took me serious[ly]. I certainly hope he didn’t think that my having stopped waving meant I thought he might have been someone else at first, or something.

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.

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 …

I (chickened) out once already, but I don’t wanna go through the chills again. They say it doesn’t hurt …
* * *
If my body has been eaten on or if it turns out I take my own life … just put me under a tree so I can at least make a decent meal for some critter. I don’t want my family to see me that way. They’ll be hurt enough as it is.
 Should I crazily attempt walking out in my condition and am nowhere to be found, please carry out the above [will].

I kindly thank whoever may do so!
The I.D. is me, natch.

— Carl McCunn, final entry & note

What We Can Learn From the Tragic Story of Carl McCunn

To prevent finding oneself in a situation similar to Carl McCunn’s, explorers can take several precautions and follow essential guidelines:

  1. Thoroughly plan and research: Before embarking on any expedition, conduct a comprehensive research about the intended location, including its geography, climate, wildlife, and potential hazards. Plan the duration of the trip, specific routes, and contingency plans.
  2. Inform others about your plans: Share your detailed itinerary, including the planned departure and return dates, with trusted individuals, such as family, friends, or local authorities. Provide them with contact information and establish regular check-in procedures.
  3. Assess personal capabilities and skills: Be honest about your physical fitness, outdoor skills, and experience. Choose expeditions that align with your abilities and gradually build up to more challenging adventures.
  4. Carry proper equipment and supplies: Prepare a well-stocked and appropriate gear kit for your specific environment and conditions. This includes navigation tools, first aid supplies, sufficient food and water, appropriate clothing, communication devices, emergency shelter, and a reliable means of fire starting.
  5. Stay informed about weather conditions: Continuously monitor weather forecasts and be aware of any potential changes or severe weather warnings. Be prepared for unexpected weather events and have plans in place to seek shelter or change course if necessary.
  6. Establish reliable communication: Carry multiple communication devices suitable for the area you are exploring. This can include satellite phones, emergency beacons, or two-way radios. Regularly check in with your designated contacts and inform them of any changes in plans or unexpected circumstances.
  7. Develop survival skills: Acquire basic survival skills, such as navigation, fire building, shelter construction, and foraging for food. Understanding these skills can help you sustain yourself and make informed decisions in challenging situations.
  8. Understand local regulations and resources: Research and adhere to any specific regulations or permits required for the area you plan to explore. Familiarize yourself with available local resources, such as emergency services or nearby shelters, in case of emergencies.
  9. Stay aware of surroundings: Maintain situational awareness during your expedition. Continually assess your environment, potential risks, and changes in conditions. Be cautious of wildlife encounters and take appropriate measures to minimize conflicts or dangers.
  10. Regularly reassess and adapt: Continuously evaluate your progress, physical and mental state, and available resources. Be flexible and willing to modify plans or adjust routes if needed. Prioritize safety over personal goals or ambitions.

Following these guidelines, conducting thorough preparations, and staying vigilant during your exploration can significantly reduce the risk of finding yourself in a dangerous or life-threatening situation, as Carl McCunn faced in 1981. May God be with you.

RIP, Carl McCunn.

Next, read about the Disturbing Truth Behind the Glendale Train Crash of 2005. Then, if you’re a fan of dark history, Read About Emmett Till, the Teenager Who Was Lynched in 1955.

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Written By

Abin Tom Sebastian, also known as Mr. Morbid in the community, is an avid fan of the paranormal and the dark history of the world. He believes that sharing these stories and histories are essential for the future generations. For god forbid, we have seen that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

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