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Frustrated and desperate, stranded man commits suicide

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Photographer Carl McCunn, stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, ate rabbit heads and tree bark to stay alive. Finally he could bear the cold and hunger no longer, asked God's forgiveness and shot himself, his diary shows.

'I (chickened) out once already, but I don't wanna go through the chills again. They say it doesn't hurt,' McCunn wrote in the 100-page diary, excerpts of which were published today in the San Antonio Light.

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'Anyway ... and people who had died and been revived recall a relaxed and wonderful free floating feeling ...'

McCunn left his Fairbanks, Alaska, home in March 1981 to travel north of the Arctic Circle to take wildlife photographs and camp in the solitude of the wilderness. He never made definite arrangements to be picked up and returned to Fairbanks.

Seven months later he would die there at the age of 35, waiting for a rescue plane that never came.

Through his ordeal of frostbite and starvation, McCunn kept taking pictures and made notes in a loose-leaf diary -- a journal found next to his body after he shot himself.

'If anything comes of his death, it will be to caution other people not to get in the same circumstances,' Carl's father, Donovan McCunn of San Antonio, told the Light in an interview.

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'If only we can keep one person from going through what that kid went through ...' he said.

The elder McCunn told the Light he wanted to donate the proceeds from possible book publication of his son's diary to establish a search and rescue team for people in similar situations.

In the diary, McCunn told how he tossed five boxes of gun shells into a lake.

'I felt rather silly for having brought so many. (Felt like a war monger.)' he wrote. '... Who would have known I might need them just to keep from starving?

'Certainly someone in town should have figured something must be wrong -- me not being back by now,' he wrote. 'What in the hell do those people think (I) gave them maps (of my camp location) for? Decoration?'

At one point, McCunn almost was saved.

Duck hunting one morning, he heard an airplane and waved his orange sleeping bag cover to catch the pilot's eye.

'Unfortunately it 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,' he wrote.

'As sunset approached, I began to doubt if the pilot took me serious.'

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The plane never returned and McCunn looked at the distress signals printed on the back of his hunting license and realized what had happened.

'I recall raising my right hand, shoulder high and shaking my fist on the plane's second pass. It was a little cheer -- like when your team scored a touchdown or something.

'Turns out that's the signal for ALL OK -- DO NOT WAIT!

'It's certainly my fault I'm here now! Probably be another five months before another plane passes over.

As his food supply dwindled, McCunn caught and ate ducks, fish, muskrats and squirrels and set up numerous snares to catch rabbits. Often, a fox or wolf beat him to the traps, leaving him with only the rabbits' feet and heads.

'Perhaps God will soon have some mercy on my situation,' he wrote.

'Fell to my knees today on the lake and begged God's help and mercy. I'm sure he heard me but don't know if He should have any reason to want to help. Tonight in my prayer I made a commitment to God. If He helps me out of this jam, I pray for His help for the strength to keep it.'

When his remaining food and fuel were depleted, he wrote his epitaph.

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'When the ashes cool, I'll be cooling along with them ...

'Dear God in Heaven, please forgive me my weakness and my sins. Please look over my family.'

He then signed a note to his father, attached his driver's license to it and killed himself.

In February 1982, Alaska state troopers found his tent. He had been dead since November or early December 1981.

Beside his body was his diary. In it, McCunn had identified Rory Cruikshank as the pilot he expected to retrieve him at the end of summer.

A coroner's inquest absolved Cruikshank of any responsibility after several witnesses testified there were no specific arrangements made for a pickup.

McCunn wrote in the diary that Cruikshank 'told me not to count on his help as he may be in Anchorage working.'

The coroner ruled McCunn's death a suicide.

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