70 years ago a mountain in Maine challenged a boy’s will to survive

Posted July 16, 2009, at 7:50 p.m.

A storm broke out on Mount Katahdin on July 17, 1939 and caught Donn Fendler, a 12-year-old from Rye, N.Y., and his 16-year-old friend Henry Condon in its cold, misty grip as high winds whirled heavy fog all around them.

The two had hiked ahead of a group that included Fendler’s father Donald, twin brother Ryan, younger brother Tommy and Fred Eaton, a family friend.

“We had left my dad and two brothers because they were going too slow,” Fendler, who turns 83 on Aug. 29, said, recalling the day 70 years ago when he became lost on the state’s largest mountain.

The group had started its ascent from the Katahdin Stream Campground around 1 p.m., taking Hunt Trail.

The two inexperienced hikers were on the plateau near Katahdin’s summit when the wall of fog hit, terrifying the young Fendler so much he made a panicked decision that changed his life forever.

“I left Henry because I was scared,” he said. “I had never been on a mountain in a storm. I just wanted to get back to my dad.”

The unprepared Boy Scout decided to try to hike down to his father, but left the trail at some point and became lost for nine days in the dense Maine woods.

“When I woke up the next morning, I knew I was in trouble,” he said by phone from his Newport camp on Sebasticook Lake. “I continued to panic.”

The search for Fendler drew national attention as more than 350 people helped search the mountainside. As the days passed, the hope he still was alive waned.

Fendler said he survived by eating berries but was helped by his “never-give-up attitude” and his faith in God and prayers. In addition to his own prayers, “prayers were sent to my mother by Western Union” from mothers from all over the country. “They did that in those days.

“I think it worked because I am still standing here,” he said.

His Boy Scout training also lent a hand — that is, after he stopped panicking.

“It taught me to keep a calm head and calm down,” he said. “I was pretty upset. I was doing a lot of things [at the beginning] you shouldn’t do when you get lost. My Scout training taught me to follow the stream downstream.”

After hiking approximately 35 miles from where he wandered away from his hiking companion near the summit, Fendler’s prayers were finally answered the afternoon of July 25, 1939, when he found a hunting camp on the East Branch of the Penobscot River.

The Bangor Daily News’ bold headline on July 26, 1939, stated: DONN FENDLER FOUND ALIVE.

“Naked and nearly exhausted, 12-year-old Donn Fendler of Rye, N.Y., emerged dramatically this afternoon from the wilderness that had held him prisoner for nine days,” the front page story said.

Three photos of the scrawny youngster and four stories associated with the missing boy adorned the newspaper’s front page.

The malnourished, 58-pound Fendler was rescued by Maine Guide Nelson McMoarn and his wife Lena, who were renting the Lunksoos Camp approximately eight miles from Stacyville.

Fendler was wearing only his white underwear when he emerged from the woods covered with bruises and bug bites. He was otherwise OK after his harrowing nine days in the wilderness, which included two bear sightings, Fendler said.

Lena McMoarn dressed him in pink bloomers and fed him soup. Later, she held him up to the mouthpiece of a crank telephone so he could call his parents, who were at Bangor General Hospital because his dad had injured his eye during the exhausting search.

“Hello, Mummy, I’m all right,” were his first words, one of the BDN articles states.

Reporter Wayne St. Germain and photographer Eddie Baker hiked 14 miles to the cabin to interview and photograph Fendler to break the news to the worried nation.

Soon after the experience, Fendler got together with author Joseph Egan to write “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” which was published in September 1939. He was invited to the White House to get a medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Later in life, he attended high school at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, went to the University of Maine, and after 28 years of service retired from the U.S. Army, the www.donnfendler.com Web site states.

Fendler married Maryrose “Ree” Connolly in 1953 and had four children. Sadly, his wife of 56 years and his constant companion died Jan. 26 after a short illness.

Over the last seven decades, Fendler, who summers in Newport and winters in Clarksville, Tenn., has spoken to numerous organizations and hundreds of schoolchildren from all over Maine and the country, telling them how he lived through the experience.

After he gets through telling his tale of those nine days, “I talk to them a little bit on survival and being prepared,” he said. “We were not prepared to go up.”

This year, “I’m already getting booked” with presentations, Fendler said. He will be at Kidney Pond in Baxter State Park on July 29 to tell his tale, and will give his annual address at the Cole Land Transportation Museum in September.

On Tuesday, a group of his relatives flew to Maine for a visit and soon after arriving, asked to visit the one place in the state that invariably sparks vivid memories for Fendler.

“They always want to go to Katahdin,” he said.

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