Donn Fendler is 85 years old, but he will be forever remembered for what happened to him when he was 12.
Fendler was a Boy Scout from Rye, N.Y., who got lost for nine days while climbing Mount Katahdin during a camping trip with family and friends in 1939. His dramatic story — it was considered a miracle he survived — was turned into the classic book “Lost on a Mountain in Maine.”
Fendler became something of a celebrity after his rescue at a remote camp owned by a Mr. and Mrs. McMoarn, and even received a Legion of Merit medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the past 20 years, Fendler has visited numerous schools to talk to children about his experience.
Now his story has become a graphic novel, “Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness” (Down East, $14.95). Fendler co-wrote the book with Lynn Plourde of Winthrop, author of more than 25 children’s books. It was illustrated by Ben Bishop, a comic book artist and illustrator who lives in Maine.
Fendler retired as a lieutenant colonel after 30 years with the U.S. Army, and today splits his times between Clarksville, Tenn., and Newport. He has four children and six grandchildren.
Q: Looking back, after this happened, did you have a lot of “if onlys?” If only you had stayed in one spot, or if only you had kept trying to make a fire
A: I did a lot of stupid things that I probably today regret. But I never sat down and said, “Gee, I should have done this,” unless I’m talking to somebody about it, or they’re asking me questions.
Q: You stayed in the hospital for a week after you were rescued. How long did it take for you to fully recover?
A: Oh geez, well actually I recovered in the hospital fine with the little scratches and the bruises and all of that, but it took a while to get my feet back in shape. They were the ones that were really beat up and cut. And my one toe was pretty well beat up. I took big chunks out of it. And the weight. So a couple of months, maybe.
But other than that, I had no bad dreams. I had no flashbacks. I had gotten no broken bones, no diseases. No physical or mental scars. It’s like a doctor said in Mr. McMoarn’s cabin, “Donn, you don’t look too bad for someone who’s been lost for nine days.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “What I mean is, you have no life-threatening problems.”
Q: What was it like returning to normal life afterwards? You became something of a celebrity for a while, didn’t you?
A: Oh, it was unbelievable. I don’t know, maybe there wasn’t that much to write about then, but it was one award after another, and it was culminated, really, by getting a medal from the president, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Oval Office.
Q: You never seemed to give up hope that someone would find you.
A: That’s one thing I really insist on telling the kids. I never thought about dying for one single second. It never entered my head. I always knew I would find somebody. I just knew it. And I just wouldn’t give up. I had a good will to live, I think that’s what it was. I think that’s true of all young kids. They just don’t know how tough they are until they come up against a situation like that and then they find out how tough they are in the heart and the mind, and they won’t give up. They’ll fight to survive.
Q: Do you think you would have lasted another night out there on your own?
A: From Mr. McMoarn’s cabin to the next point of civilization going downstream, by going down the east branch of the Penobscot, was the town of Grindstone 16 miles away. If I’d been able to cross the river and got to Mr. McMoarn’s cabin and nobody was there, there is a trail that goes from that camp into the town of Stacyville, which is about 10 or 12 miles away.
But I’m looking at it as an elder person now. I don’t think I would have made it 16 more miles. I’d pretty much reached the end, because I’d been passing out, and everything was getting blurry. Who knows? Maybe God had something else in mind, I don’t know. But the reality is, probably not.
Q: After this experience, did you ever go fishing and camping again?
A: Oh sure. I’ve gone back to Katahdin, and it doesn’t bother me. I’ve climbed it again. Of course, they wouldn’t let me go alone. I did it with my son, camping and hiking with the Scouts, and it never bothered me to do it.
Q: How old were you when you first went back to climb it?
A: Thirteen. We went back the next year. We tried to find the route I took, but we never did.
Q: Did you ever see Mr. and Mrs. McMoarn again?
A: I only saw them one time after (the rescue), at a parade they gave for me shortly after I came out of the woods, in Millinocket.
Q: It’s a good thing they were there that day you were found.
A: Yeah (laughing). I knew they had been living there, because I could see these canoes. One had a motor down at the shoreline, and a couple up at the cabin. The problem was, how was I going to get across? I thought of swimming, but I knew I would never make it swimming. Then I had the bright idea of floating across on a log, but by the time I got across, I’d probably be eight miles downstream in a bunch of rapids.
You’d have to see the DVD that we made. We found film about three years ago. One of my uncles came in the day that I was found, and he took film. My younger brother found this film in a footlocker and had it developed, and there, lo and behold, are these pictures showing the cabin and everything, and showing Mr. McMoarn and me, taking me downriver by canoe and meeting my mother. Now I show it to kids every place I go, along with my talk.
Q: Do you think this kind of thing could happen to a 12-year-old on Katahdin today, given all the technology we have now?
A: Probably not. He could be lost, but I think they’d find him pretty quickly. They can’t use cell phones, because they don’t work up there. But, you know, you’ve got helicopters and a whole breed of people who are really trained for this type of thing. I’m not saying that whoever the young person is who gets lost wouldn’t be lost for a period of time, but I think it’s more likely that they’ll find him.
Q: Are you glad this happened, or do you wish it would just go away?
A: If you asked me a long time ago, I wish it had never happened, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But what I like about it is, I get to meet a lot of great kids. I get to meet a lot of great teachers, I get to see a lot of terrific schools. I get to see a lot of Maine.
I enjoy being with the kids. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to stop.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: