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Donn Fendler was impatient. The year was 1939, two years after the inauguration of the Appalachian Trail, and the 12-year-old had been hiking up Katahdin’s Hunt Trail with a group including his father and brothers when he and 17-year-old friend Henry Condon decided to forge ahead. Now high on the mountain, heavy clouds were moving in, and Fendler was cold and impatient. He told Condon he was heading back down, gave the older boy his sweatshirt, and struck out into the fog.
Fendler never found his family. For the next nine days, the young New Yorker would wander through the woods in and around Baxter State Park, as hundreds of people, from Boy Scouts to mill workers to the New York State Police, mounted a headline-grabbing manhunt for him. Fendler, who died on October 9 at age 90, would later turn his ordeal into a book, Lost on a Mountain in Maine.
It didn’t take long for Fendler to realize he had lost his way in the fog. “I remembered some things I had learned in Scouting,” he later told coauthor Joseph Egan. “First thing, I must keep my head, then, maybe, if I looked close, I could find a trail.” After spending an uncomfortable night in the roots of a large tree, Fendler decided to follow a stream in hopes that it would take him back to civilization.
Things quickly went from bad to worse. On the second day of his trek, Fendler lost his sneakers while hiking barefoot down the creek. His jeans followed soon after, carried downstream when he tried to toss them on top of a rock. Clouds of black flies and mosquitoes swarmed him, nipping at him and crawling into his ears and nose. He survived on stream water berries, twice encountering black bears while he tried to gather fruit. When Fendler finally resurfaced nine days later, at the Lunksoos Camp, 35 miles from where he disappeared, he weighed less than 60 pounds.
The camp is now part of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
While he was gone, the search for Fendler had captured national attention, landing him in the New York Times and Life magazine. After spending a few days in a Bangor hospital, he made a complete recovery; a year later, Fendler met President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who presented him with the Army and Navy Legion of Valor medal.
As an adult, Fendler went on to a distinguished military career, serving in the Pacific theatre of World War II and Vietnam. But his experience on Katahdin would continue to define him for the rest of his life. For years, Lost on a Mountain in Maine was required reading in schools across the state, and in 2014, Governor Paul LePage declared July 25 “Donn Fendler Day”.
Late into his life, Fendler continued to give talks to school groups and park visitors in Maine, to whose people he said he remained grateful. On Tuesday, Baxter State Park mourned Fendler’s passing on its Facebook page, writing that “his message of hope, faith, love and perseverance has been delivered to countless Maine children (and adults) over the decades.”
“We know Donn, that on the trail you are on now, you are anything but lost,” they said.