Outdoors in Maine: The forgotten Fendler legacy

It seems, for whatever reasons, one of Maine’s most fascinating and uplifting woods lore adventures has faded with time.

V. Paul Reynolds, Outdoors Columnist

In Maine, July 25 is Donn Fendler Day. Governor Paul LePage claimed it so in July of 2014, 75 years after a skinny, 12-year-old New York boy survived an incredible nine-day ordeal lost in the North Woods. It is a survival story of uncommon human endurance that, in context of this youngster’s heartbreaking misery, has all the elements of a true miracle.

After being separated from his family and walking off the trail on Mt. Katahdin in mid-July, Donn Fendler wandered aimlessly for miles until he stumbled upon a stream and telephone line that led to an eventual rescue. Except for a few handfuls of wild berries, he survived on sheer faith in God and Boy Scout determination. Think of it. No food. No matches. No knife. No compass. No shoes after the first day. No trousers after the second day. Exposed to every kind of insect bite imaginable. Feet carved to ribbons by rocks.

During his ordeal, Fendler and the search for him was big news for a few days in 1939. But the press and others gave up on him and all but abandoned the coverage and the search. Survival experts shook their heads. A woods-wise adult, they reasoned, would have been driven mad by just the insects. Fendler beat the odds. And once rescued, the spotlight was on him and his story for weeks afterward. There were parades, and even a visit with then-President Roosevelt.

In adulthood, Fendler went on to become a Special Forces soldier serving in Vietnam. Throughout his life, he never forgot his “Maine roots,” and often returned to speak to school students about his Maine adventure. Colonel Fendler died at the age of 90 in October of 2016.

What was Fendler’s special quality that brought him through? Survival writer Laurence Gonzales theorizes that all of us deal differently with what he calls “woods shock.” Under the pressures that Fendler faced, according to Gonzales, woodscraft and physical toughness matter less than the spirit of an individual, the will to survive.

Joseph Egan, who wrote Fendler’s recounted story, credits these three things for Fendler’s survival psychology: 1) Faith; 2) Boy Scout instilled confidence; and 3) Deep love for his mother.

And who knows, Fendler may have had some other transcendent help. According to an editorial in a Boston newspaper at that time, “the mothers of America never gave up hope that Fendler would be found,” even when the experts said it was hopeless.

What youngster, even today, would not find this story riveting and worthy of lessons to be learned? Long after Donn Fendler Day on July 25, encourage your youngsters to read about this Maine outdoor legacy. Perhaps, as well, you should inquire as to whether the book is available in school libraries.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal, an author, a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program, “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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