Outdoors in Maine: Fendler’s Forgotten Legacy

It seems, for whatever reason, that one of the most fascinating and uplifting adventures in Maine woods history has faded over time.

V. Paul Reynolds, outdoor columnist

In Maine, July 25 is Donn Fendler Day. Governor Paul LePage said so in July 2014, 75 years after a scrawny 12-year-old boy from New York survived an incredible nine-day lost ordeal in the North Woods. It is a survival story of extraordinary human endurance which, against the backdrop of this young man’s heartbreaking misery, has all the elements of a true miracle.

After being separated from his family and leaving the Mount Katahdin trail in mid-July, Donn Fendler wandered aimlessly for miles until he came across a stream and a telephone line that led to a possible rescue. Except for a few handfuls of wild berries, he survived thanks to his pure faith in God and the determination of the scouts. Think about it. No food. No match. No knife. No compass. No shoes after the first day. No pants after the second day. Exposed to every kind of insect bite imaginable. Feet sculpted with ribbons by rocks.

During his ordeal, Fendler and his research made headlines for a few days in 1939. But the press and others abandoned him and all but gave up coverage and research. The survival experts shook their heads. A wise adult of the woods, they thought, would have been driven mad by the insects alone. Fendler defied predictions. And once rescued, the spotlight was on him and his story for weeks. There were parades and even a visit with then President Roosevelt.

As an adult, Fendler became a special forces soldier serving in Vietnam. Throughout his life, he never forgot his “Maine roots” and often returned to tell students about his adventure in Maine. Colonel Fendler died aged 90 in October 2016.

What was the special quality of Fendler that got him through? Survival writer Laurence Gonzales theorizes that we all process what he calls “clash of the woods” differently. Under the pressures Fendler faced, according to Gonzales, carpentry and physical toughness mattered less than an individual’s spirit, the will to survive.

Joseph Egan, who wrote the story told by Fendler, attributes these three elements to Fendler’s survival psychology: 1) Faith; 2) Boy Scout instilled confidence; and 3) Deep love for his mother.

And who knows, maybe Fendler had another transcendent helper. According to a Boston newspaper editorial at the time, “America’s mothers never gave up hope that Fendler would be found”, even when experts said it was hopeless.

What young person, even today, would not find this story fascinating and worthy of lessons to learn? Long after Donn Fendler Day on July 25, encourage your kids to read up on this outdoor Maine heritage. Maybe you should also find out if the book is available in school libraries.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal, author, guide to Maine, and host of a weekly radio show, “Maine Outdoors,” heard at 7 p.m. Sundays on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network. Contact him at [email protected]

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