At the age of 10, I spent a handful of early mornings with my dad at the Wilton Fish & Game Club, alongside other local individuals, taking part in a Hunter’s Safety Course. Many more early mornings during that fall of 2002 were spent bundling up in cotton, wool and fleece – greens and grays under a coating of orange – and walking across stiff gravel roads and over frosty clearings and thickets; I’ll never hear another crunch like the one my boots made when contacting the nearly frozen blades of grass and bushes. My hunting expeditions were never too intense, although bloody noses and cold toes sometimes got the best of me, but even so, trekking across miles of nature and wild animal habitat can make the world feel quite large and small all at the same time.
With the help of my parents – I was responsible enough to carry a .410 but not enough to melt down wax for waterproofing my matches – I compiled everything I needed to put together my survival kit using a checklist and notes from the Course. Feeling truly prepared for anything, I daydreamed about how I would use each individual item if I ever found myself lost in the woods. For some reason in this daydream, my dad did nothing; although more able bodied and knowledgeable than 10-year old me, I believed I could pull us out of any trouble – and he would let me – if we found it. We never did, but preparedness is not something I have left behind.
My imaginary – albeit slightly inappropriate – scenarios, fantasies if I may, of getting lost in the woods were surely fueled by adventurous stories I read about in books, especially those (Harry Potter) that involved adults and/or children in survival situations. Not all were fiction, however, and some I read exclusively up to camp as they lived on my grandfather’s shelves there. For some time, I dove into Lost on a Mountain in Maine, especially when I was brought back to camp due to a bloody nose or frozen toes and everyone was still out hunting. For those not familiar with the true story, at 12 years old, Donn Fendler was separated from his father and brothers on Mount Katahdin and was lost for nine days. He survived to tell his story in this book, in interviews, and even a film. This week, on October 10th, Donn Fendler passed away at 90 years old, and I am saddened by the void this creates and thoughtful of how his life is so intertwined with the state I call home.
Mainers hold onto themselves as tightly as any force imaginable. Anna Kendrick, for example, is a Portland native who will almost always be referred to as “Mainer Anna Kendrick” in local headlines. We are Patrick Dempsey’s home state, you can drive by Stephen King’s home in Bangor, and Leon Leonwood Bean created a boot here that has taken the world by storm. We are proud of fellow Mainers who find success while remembering and nurturing their roots, and love when they tell stories of the Pine Tree State. Donn Fendler was not a Maine native, nor was he even a New Englander. But his story is one many Mainers cherish, understand, and hold dear enough that his book even appears as a reading requirement in many schools.
One of the first things Mainers, and really anyone who will be spending time in the woods, is told is if you find yourself lost, stay in one spot. This usually comes after: “tell someone where you are going before you head out” but even if it doesn’t, the best thing to do is not continue walking, running, or more accurately, wandering. This rule always reminds me of a specific lesson from my Safety Course, not surprisingly. We watched a video that was supplemented with a quiz, in which a man finds himself lost during a hunting trip. There’s snow on the ground (which automatically makes everything five times worse, of course), and he ends up walking in circles. For the quiz, we had to decide if it was wrong of him to continue, or smart. I think he froze to death, or at least got frostbite (this last part may be the pessimistic part of my brain imagining/talking). Anyway, the disregard of this basic rule, or guideline, is the mistake that led Donn Fendler to become a household name.
Henry said I was foolish and tried to stop me, but I knew I was all right. I guess I thought I knew more than he did, for I only shrugged my shoulders and laughed at him. Just then, an extra heavy cloud rolled in around us. I thought of people being lost in clouds and getting off the trail–and maybe that hurried me a little as I pulled up my fleece-lined reefer about my neck and started down. Boy, I can see now what a mistake that was! A fellow is just plain dumb who laughs at people who knows more than he does.
Admiration of Donn Fendler and the intrigue of his story never surprises me. As a Boy Scout, he had experience and knowledge of the outdoors, which undoubtedly aided him throughout those nine days. The confidence that comes with knowledge and experience is something many [Maine] outdoorsmen and women can relate to; as a 10-year-old my extreme confidence fueled my mind as I ridiculously dreamt of the day I would get lost in the woods so I would be able to use my acquired skills to survive. Donn Fendler’s story does not just resonate with those who travel and play and live in the woods, but also with those who reside in concrete forests, because of humanity’s fascination with the basic human instinct, fascination with the wildness of nature, and fascination with hope.
Funny how you can get chummy with the wild animals when you’re in the woods. I had to laugh at that chipmunk–he was so busy talking, with that tail of his jerking up and down all the time. I found out that the woods creatures don’t want to hurt you, and they’d all help you if they could. I just lay there and listened–and laughed a little. It didn’t seem to me that I could ever get up. I tried to lift my head, but it just plopped back like a head made of putty…It sounds funny, but I wasn’t glad another day had come. I was sorry, because I had to walk some more and my feet were so sore and covered with cuts and bites that every step made me yell out. That was at first, but a person can get used to anything, I guess. After my feet got warmed up, it wasn’t so bad.
In an interview with John Holyoke of the Bangor Daily News in 2014, Donn Fendler himself admitted to having to learn why his story meant so much, to Mainers especially:
“‘I never understood why the book or the story meant so much to Maine people,’ Fendler said. ‘Finally it dawned on me: Maine people are rugged people. They’re resourceful. They’re resilient. They’re outdoors people … People in Maine could relate to exactly what I was going through. They knew. They knew the woods. They knew the bugs. They knew the whole thing. They could follow each day and know what I was going through.’”
My hope is that Donn Fendler’s story, and other tales of adventure, being lost, and the natural world, continue being told. Just like I’ll never tire of looking through my survival kit, or hearing my dad, uncles, and cousins describe the names and appearances of particular areas they hunt, or hiking up a mountain to take in all the beauty, comfort, and wildness of the woods, I’ll never tire of reading Lost on a Mountain in Maine, and sharing stories of survival, nature, and hope.
Quotes used (pg. 9 and 58-59) are from the First Beech Tree Edition of Lost on a Mountain in Maine, published in 1992.