Lost on a Mountain in Maine

Donn Fendler

Here is Donn Fendler just after he was rescued. He is holding the gunny sack he used to fight off bugs for the last few days before he was rescued. (AP Photo, file)

Lost on a Mountain in MaineLost on a Mountain in Maine is a true story about a 12 year old boy who got lost during a hike on Mt. Katahdin. Donn Fendler was climbing Katahdin with his father, two brothers, and two friends in July 1939 when clouds descended on the mountain and he became separated from the rest of the group. Donn eventually descended the mountain by himself, but on the wrong side from the way he had climbed it. He wandered in the Maine wilderness for the next nine days, surviving only on strawberries and water from the stream he was following. He was rescued when he arrived at the East Branch of the Penobscot River and people at a hunting camp close by called the authorities.

Katahdin trail map

This map can be hard to read in spots, but it gives you an idea of the area. Compare this one with the Google map below. You can see Baxter Peak at the bottom. The Hunt Trail that Donn climbed the mountain on approaches it from the left. Donn wandered north into the Great Basin area. You can see the Saddle Trail headed in that direction. Donn crossed the Saddle Trail at least once while coming down. He wandered far off this map to the north over the next 9 days. See the Google map below to find out just how far!

Donn and his friend Henry Condon walked ahead of the group and reached Baxter Peak on Mt. Katahdin before the others. It was very cold up there with clouds swirling around like fog. They saw a man walking toward them from the Knife Edge, a long ridge that extends generally east from Baxter Peak. Henry wanted to wait for the man to arrive at Baxter Peak so that they could walk back with an adult to rejoin the rest of the group further down the mountain. But Donn was cold and didn’t want to wait. So he began walking alone down the mountain. He soon lost the trail in the jumble of rocks and couldn’t find his family. Then it began to sleet and a turn dark. He needed to get down below treeline to protect himself from the weather.

Donn saw clouds very much like this during his hike.

This is the kind of scene Donn would have seen while coming off Baxter Peak. Lots of big, jagged rocks and all covered in clouds. From Flickr: KW0326

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He walked further down the mountain until he was in a forest. Unfortunately, he had walked down the north side of the mountain in a very different direction from where his family was camped at Katahdin Stream. He walked down into the Great Basin area to the north of Baxter Peak (see the trail map above).

Eventually, he came upon a small brook and remembered the following bit of wisdom from the Boy Scouts: “When lost, follow a stream down. It will lead to a larger stream, and there are always camps along the larger streams.” This brook fed into Wassataquoik Stream. Check out the Google map below. Wassataquoik Stream is waaaaaaaay to the north of Baxter Peak!  Donn described his trip to backwoods guides after he was rescued. They figured out that he had walked more than 100 miles while he was lost. He walked between 10 and 14 miles each day–and he walked barefoot through the woods with no trail for most of the 9 days! That’s because his sneakers got torn up from walking on sharp rocks and then his feet swelled up from bug bites and wouldn’t have fit in them anyway. Wassataquoik Stream flows far northward, then back south and east to meet up with the East Branch of the Penobscot River. It was a very rocky stream, as most Maine streams are, and sometimes hard to follow.

Donn followed this stream all the way to the East Branch of the Penobscot River.

Donn followed this stream all the way to the East Branch of the Penobscot River.

During his wandering, Donn lost his jeans and sneakers. His jeans got wet and cold so he took them off. He carried them for awhile, but then accidentally dropped them into a whitewater section of the stream. He couldn’t get them back. This meant that he had a whole lot of skin available for the mosquitos, moose flies, black flies, copperhead flies, and no-see-ums to feast on. His feet swelled up and the bites made him miserable.

Imagine thousands of these beasts swarming around you plus many other kinds of flies too.

Imagine thousands of these beasts swarming around you plus many other kinds of flies too.

Donn ate only wild strawberries because he didn’t think he could correctly identify blueberries or any other berries. He saw trout in the stream several times but was worried that he shouldn’t eat them raw because he believed he could get sick. One time while eating strawberries, he came face to face with a black bear–also eating strawberries!

Would you be scared if you spent the night alone in the woods with no shelter? Donn might have been more scared if he wasn’t so tired each night from his walking all day. Even at night, things are still happening in the forest. Some animals are moving around. Sometimes the wind blowing in the trees can make unusual sounds that make you wonder what’s out there in the dark. Donn only mentioned one forest night sound in the book: the screech owl. They can sound really scary in the dark. Click here to listen to a screech owl.

Donn came face-to-face with a black bear while eating strawberries. From Flickr: bobtravis

Donn came face-to-face with a black bear while eating strawberries. From Flickr: bobtravis

One of the first things you’ll notice about this book are the old-fashioned words. When Donn experiences something painful or when he’s surprised at something, he’ll say, “Christmas!” This is about the same as if you or I said “Wow!” or “Crap!” or maybe some worse words that I can’t write here and if I did, my mom would wash my mouth out with soap. Remember: this all happened about 70 years ago!

It’s amazing how Donn never gives up hope that he’ll be rescued or that he’ll find civilization again. He always believed that a camp and safety could be just around the next bend in the stream. So he kept walking day after day for nine days! He didn’t panic; he just accepted his difficult situation and kept believing that he could get out of it soon.

If you’re a hiker or if you’ve read about wilderness survival or if you think you’re an all-around pretty smart guy or girl, there are plenty of parts of this book where you would second-guess Donn. Why didn’t he just stay on the trail? Why didn’t he keep better track of his pants and sneakers instead of losing them? There are notes scattered throughout the book by Joseph B. Egan, the author who Donn told his story to. Egan fills the reader in on all kinds of facts and details that Donn wasn’t aware of while he was lost. He also backs up some decisions that Donn made, explaining how they are not so foolish as they might seem to the reader.

Here is Donn today. He is 82 years old.

Here is Donn today. He is 82 years old.

For example, just after he became lost near Baxter Peak, some people wonder why he didn’t just stay in the same spot until he was found by rescuers. Egan tells us that it was getting colder on the mountain and Donn didn’t have the right clothing or shelter to stay there. That night, the temperature was lower than 40 degrees and there was a 40 mile per hour wind on the mountaintop. That means the wind chill was around 27 degrees!

 But I’ve only scratched the surface of this book here! Read Lost on a Mountain in Maine to find out just how a 12 year old boy could survive for 9 days while lost in the Maine wilderness.

Links

Donn Fendler.com More pictures, maps, video of Donn.

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3 responses to “Lost on a Mountain in Maine

  1. Wow! Excellent commentary / summary of the books!

  2. Man, I was interested in reading this before, but now I am even more!

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