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Donn Fendler, ‘Lost on a Mountain in Maine’ Author, Dies at 90

Michael C. York
Associated Press
Donn Fendler chats with a young reader at a book signing in Bangor in Nov. 2011.

Donn Fendler may not be a household name, but thousands of schoolchildren know him as the 12-year-old boy who used his wits and stamina to endure nine days alone in the Maine wilderness. Fendler died over the weekend at the age of 90, but his legacy lives on in a classic children’s book, “Lost on a Mountain in Maine.”

Donn Fendler’s epic journey began near the summit of Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain. It was July 1939, foggy and raining, and young Donn was impatient.

“I was cold and shivering and I never was good at standing cold anyway. Nights when Ryan and Tom slept with only a sheet on them, Dad always came in with a blanket for me,” reads a description from his book.

So instead of waiting for his father, brother and the rest of his hiking party to catch up, Fendler took off down the mountain. And for the next nine days he was lost.

“There were plenty of times I wanted to give up and just say the heck with it. Like those last few days. But you just keep going. Like I told you, it’s your will to live,” Fendler says in the documentary “Finding Donn Fendler.”

Fendler describes nearly passing out from exhaustion on the day he was discovered more than 35 miles away. He’d lost his jeans and his shoes, was covered in mosquito bites and survived a tumble down an embankment and an encounter with black bears. But his twin brother, Ryan, says Donn remembered something he’d learned in the Boy Scouts: to follow a stream.

“He came across an old cabin and there was a potato sack in there and a few other things that he could use. But he ate berries and drank water and really didn’t have anything to eat, and he was below 70 pounds when they found him,” Ryan Fendler says.

Hundreds of people searched for Fendler, including troopers with bloodhounds from his home state of New York. The gripping story of the boy lost in the Maine woods captured newspaper headlines around the country. Ryan Fendler says at around day five many gave up hope his brother would be found alive.

“You know, we’d get together every evening and we’d say prayers and stuff like that. We’re Catholic and the church jumped right in. But for my mother and father it was, it was really tough,” he says.

Eventually, Fendler stumbled upon the East Branch of the Penobscot River. Across the water was a hunting camp and Fendler was able, just barely, to summon help from the occupants.

Fendler went onto serve in three wars as part of the Army. He retired as a lieutenant colonel.

The book about his ordeal was published in 1978. And friends and family members say sharing it with schoolchildren was one of his greatest joys.

“I loved the man and I loved the hero. He was a hero and an inspiration and an icon to so many people,” says children’s book author Lynn Plourde, who helped Fendler write a second, more graphic book about his experience called “Lost Trail.”

Plourde says she was in awe of him because of his strength of character. Fendler inspired kids, she says, because he could make them believe that they, too, could survive a perilous adventure with a little bit of luck and by never ever giving up.

“Lost on a Mountain in Maine” has long been required reading for many 4th graders in Maine and beyond.