Fendler’s tale still resonates, 75 years later

Every several years, I do myself a favor, whether I think I need to do myself that favor or not.

I read the Donn Fendler story, “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” and am amazed, yet again, by what a 12-year-old boy was able to do when he found himself stranded on Mount Katahdin — especially what he did for nine days as he fought for survival in some of the most brutal terrain that this state has to offer.

Donn Fendler, 87, talks about his epic nine-day journey as a 12-year-old boy when he became lost on Mount Katahdin. (BDN photo by Ashley L. Conti)

Donn Fendler, 87, talks about his epic nine-day journey as a 12-year-old boy when he became lost on Mount Katahdin. (BDN photo by Ashley L. Conti)

Seventy-five years ago this week, Fendler walked out of the woods near what is now Lunksoos Camps, closer to Stacyville. As the bird flies, he’d traveled 35 miles since he disappeared near the summit of Katahdin nine days earlier. As 12-year-old feet travel, he’d probably covered closer to 50, or 60 or 80 miles, some estimate.

He traveled nearly the entire way without sneakers.

Or pants.

Or underwear.

And he survived.

Luckily for all of us, Fendler, now 87 years old, still spends his summers on Sebasticook Lake in Newport.

And luckily for journalists like me, Fendler is a gracious host, a true gentleman, and he suffers endlessly repetitive questions — which he’s been fielding for much of the last 75 years — with grace and a smile.

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to interview Fendler several times. Sometimes on a golf course, where his pals rib him about going into the woods to try to find his ball. Sometimes in front of the governor, when he’s being praised for all the educational visits he has paid to Maine schools over the years.

And once —finally — at the lake home he loves.

Fendler steps back in time seamlessly, likely because he has been asked to tell his tale so many times in so many places.

“Even as a 12-year-old kid, I knew I did a dumb thing,” Fendler says, explaining the decision he made to leave a family friend as a storm blew over Katahdin, and to make an attempt to find his father lower on the mountain. “I knew I was in trouble, and scared.”

At the beginning of his journey, Fendler made just about every bad decision you could make — he’ll tell you. He did not remain calm. He did not have a plan.

“I lost my cool. I remember running around, yelling and hollering and screaming,” he says.

The scariest part was to follow shortly after that: Fendler figured he’d find an intersecting trail if he barged on, into a very rugged section of terrain.

“I got the idea I’d go over the side of the mountain and I didn’t find any trail that I thought I’d find,” he said. “I went down an old avalanche slide, which is not a thing to go down.”

The descent was rapid, and Fendler took some solid knocks as he bounced off boulders.

It may have been that decision that ended up thwarting all rescue efforts. According to the written account of his journey, searchers spent the first five days on Katahdin focusing their efforts above the tree line.

Fendler was far lower on the mountain within hours.

“They think they didn’t come within 10 miles of me [during that 1939 search],” Fendler says now. “They figured I was dead, according to my dad.”

And Fendler’s father refused to believe the searchers.

“My dad kept saying, ‘He’s not on this mountain. You don’t know my son,’” Fendler said. “My dad firmly believed I wasn’t on there.”

And he wasn’t.

Today, Fendler still thinks the title of the book, “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” is just plain wrong.

Because his dad was right, you see.

Fendler wasn’t lost on a mountain in Maine for more than a few hours.

Lost in the woods near a mountain in Maine? That took up the rest of his time.

He doesn’t recognize the good-looking chap shown in the artist’s rendition of him on the book cover, “It’s certainly not me. I’m not that good-looking.”

He doesn’t recognize the blue jacket the imitation Donn is wearing.

“Mine was brown,” he says.

But after surviving in the Maine woods, subsisting on just a cup of wild strawberries and frequent drinks of water from the stream he was following, Fendler eventually realized why his father wanted his story to be told.

“He wanted to have it published for young people to read and to have them see what determination and faith can do,” Fendler says. “And faith had a lot to do with it.”

Seventy-five years after the end of his epic adventure, Fendler’s story still resonates. It still inspires.

And it still causes many of us — when we take the time to do ourselves a favor and re-read the old classic — to ask the scariest question of all … the question the book never asks of us, but that we, as readers, are forced to ask ourselves.

What if that was me?

Fendler says we’d do OK. He says we’re resilient and stubborn and strong at heart.

He says all of us could do the exact same thing he did so many years ago.

Here’s hoping that he’s right.

And recognizing that he might be giving some of us a lot more credit than we deserve.


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John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.