LEWISTON — Close encounters with bears, being alone in the wild for nine days without food and walking barefoot without pants, his body covered by bug bites. These are some of the experiences Donn Fendler relayed to students as he described what it was like to be lost in the Maine woods.

Fendler, 86, brought children’s literature to life Tuesday by speaking to Geiger Elementary School students. Fendler is the subject of the Maine children’s book, “Lost on a Mountain in Maine.”

Fendler, who lives half the year in Newport and the other half in Tennessee, offered to visit Geiger when fourth-graders in Jennifer Groover’s class wrote to him after reading the book.

Fendler told students he was 12 years old when he got lost in 1939.

It started out as a Mt. Katahdin climb on July 17. He was with his father, brothers and friends. As the group climbed, Fendler and his friend, Henry, zipped ahead. The others were slow. He asked his father if he could he go ahead with Henry. His father said, yes, “but don’t leave Henry.”

As he and Henry ascended above the treeline, the weather turned from sunny to stormy. Heavy rain and wind assaulted them. The temperature dropped. The boys hid behind rocks.

“Then I got scared,” Fendler said. “I said, ‘Henry, I’m going back.’” As his friend protested, he took off. “It was the stupidest thing I’ve done in my life,” Fendler said. “I should have stayed.”

He started down and soon lost the trail. The trails were poorly worn or marked in those days, as few people climbed. He found himself sliding out of control on an old avalanche path, landing on his hip in pain. “I could not move,” he said. Eventually he got up and made his way to the bottom of the mountain near a stream.

“My sneakers were ripped up, my feet were bleeding, my sneakers were getting tight,” evidence that his feet were swollen. He soaked his feet in the stream to reduce the swelling. He fell asleep.

When he woke the next morning, “I saw trees, trees and more trees,” Fendler said. “I was one scared, upset guy. I lost it.” He started screaming and hollering.

He had hallucinations of his friend’s head on a stone, men dressed in robes, a man on a horse and a black car driving through trees with his father. A doctor told him later he was in shock.

Finally, “my Boy Scout training kicked in,” Fendler said. He remembered being told that if he were ever lost in the woods, to remain calm and follow a stream. The stream would lead to a river — which would eventually lead to people.

He started following the Wassataquoik Stream.

“I lost my sneakers,” he said.

He was continuously bitten by swarms of black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies. “They got so bad, they drove me into the stream.” He dove in the water to clear his eyes, ears and nose of bugs. When he came out, “they were waiting for me. There wasn’t a spot on me that was not bitten.”

He spent eight more days walking barefoot through thick woods. Meanwhile, hundreds of people looked for him. The search efforts made national headlines.

After several days of walking and diving into the stream, he took off his heavy, wet jeans and tossed them across a stream. Instead of landing on the other side, the pants fell into the rushing water and were carried away. “The mosquitoes had a lot more area of me to bite,” Fendler said. “The next thing to go was my underwear,” which was ripped to shreds by rocks and brush.

While lost, he ate only wild strawberries. He lost 16 pounds, going from 74 to 58 pounds. “I dreamt about doughnuts and milk all the time.”

During his ordeal, he encountered two black bears. The first time, the bear was standing on its hind legs, sniffing the air. “I froze,” Fendler said. The bear lost interest and left. “I dropped on my knees and said a few prayers of thanks.”

The second time, he heard a growl while collecting berries. That bear also left. Experts told him later the bears probably didn’t attack because they weren’t hungry, he didn’t pose a threat and they were not mothers with cubs.

On about the sixth day, he heard a plane. He scrambled to find a clearing, but by the time he did, the plane was out of sight.

“I cried my heart out,” he said.

As the days wore on, he grew weaker. He fainted and fell. He remembered thinking he could not get up. “I felt these hands on my shoulders,” he said. “It was my guardian angel.”

On the ninth day, he came to the East Branch of the Penobscot River and saw two cabins on the other side. He climbed a tree, yelled for help, then fainted.

A man appeared. Soon Fendler was tucked in bed, and the man’s wife fed him tomato soup.

After his rescue, he received a medal from President Franklin Roosevelt. He was also feted in a parade and featured in Life magazine.

He married, had four children and served in the Army. After he retired, he began visiting classrooms, sharing his lessons.

He survived in the wild, Fendler told students, because of three things.

First, “my faith in God and prayers.” Thousands of mothers across the country prayed for his survival. “It worked because I’m standing here.”

Second, his Scout training taught him he needed to be calm and follow a stream.

Lastly, his inner strength. “I never thought about dying for one single second,” Fendler said. “I just never gave up.”

[email protected]

Mountain climbing advice

LEWISTON — Donn Fendler, the subject of the book “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” told students Tuesday that if they ever climb or hike in the wild, take the following precautions:

* Always hike with a buddy.

* Wear proper footwear, not sneakers or flip-flops.

* Carry water and some food.

* Carry a first aid kit.

* Carry a big garbage bag that could become a poncho, in case of rain.

* “Have a whistle. If you get separated, it will really help.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: