Donn Fendler, Maine legend, died this weekend. He lived to the ripe old age of 90, which is probably about 78 years longer than he thought he would at one point. Famous for spending nine days in the Katahdin-area wilderness at the age of 12, Fendler’s story of survival is ageless and has captivated children across the state for decades, including my own.
It’s through Donn Fendler’s books that I was able to get my children to understand the reality of getting lost in the Maine woods. It’s through his story that I was able to teach the basics of woods safety and the possible consequences of taking those rules too lightly. And it’s through his example that I was able to show my children an example of extreme grace and resilience under pressure.
There are two very good reasons why this is so.
First, this is a rip-roaring adventure story.
Survival tales are a staple of children’s literature for good reason. Few children can help being swept up into a story that includes getting lost, an encounter with a bear, breaking into creepy old cabins, losing your pants, bugs, bleeding feet and a dramatic and unlikely rescue. Especially when that tale is true. And most especially when the star of the story is a kid.
My children were spellbound by Fendler’s bravery, persistence, and faith. We hear an awful lot about the need to teach “grit” to kids these days. Donn Fendler was the very personification of grit in the face of some truly terrible odds.
Second, this is an amazing cautionary tale
Fendler’s story doesn’t make anything about the Maine woods cute or Disney-like. This isn’t a fun adventure. There’s inspiration, and a little bit of magic, to be found here but he’s brutally honest about how cold, hungry, and miserable he was. The forests of Maine are no joke and no one reading Fendler’s story walks away thinking it’s a good idea.
In a day and age where it’s very easy to remove ourselves from the danger of nature, where adventure reality television makes dealing with the wilderness seem like a game, Fendler’s story is a reminder that we aren’t in charge. If you are going to spend time outdoors with your kids, they need to respect what the woods can do and know how to react when things go wrong, and Fendler is incredibly helpful in that regard, offering both good examples of resourceful and chances to second-guess his choices.
It doesn’t undermine Fendler’s legacy or courage to say he made mistakes. The honesty and straightforwardness with which he shares his story show that the consequences were dire. Every kid who reads this story will understand both the glory and danger of Maine’s wilderness.
The entire state of Maine owes Donn Fendler, who didn’t actually live in Maine, a debt of gratitude. He highlighted the best of our state–our wilderness, our toughness, and our generosity of spirit–for years. He made a habit of visiting schools to share his story, long past the point where he probably got tired of telling it–even participating a Minecraft version of his adventure as recently as this past spring. It’s impossible to know how many lives he touched, inspired, and possibly saved through his story. It’s not easy to carry nine terrible days of your life with you as long as he did, and he did it graciously.
Thank you, Donn Fendler. On behalf of myself, my kids, and my state: thank you for everything.
A note on the Donn Fendler books
If you’ve never read Fendler’s story, you have two choices. Lost on a Mountain in Maine is his retelling of the story immediately after the fact, captured by Joseph B. Egan.
This version is so true to Fendler’s voice that this book sounds like a twelve-year-old from 1939 talking to you. From his rock-solid faith in prayer to his “golly gee” jargon, it’s an incredible, time-capsule piece of literature that I didn’t think could be improved on.
That is, until I read Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness. This graphic novel that Fendler wrote in 2011 with illustrator Ben Bishop and Maine author Lynn Plourde updates the story with more accessible language for today’s generation while the illustrations bring it to startling life. If your kids are younger than 10, this is a much easier version and will require significantly less historical explanation. But don’t be fooled, it’s just as powerful as the first.
Whichever version you prefer, and both are excellent in their own way, make sure you buy them. Chances are excellent you’ll want to read them again and again.