Lost on a Mountain in Maine
Revisiting the scene of a classic children’s book

An excerpt from North to Katahdin, by Eric Pinder

A week of wilderness and solitude proved more than enough for a boy named Donn Fendler in 1939. He arrived at the foot of Mount Katahdin as a typical tourist, a “slight, highly nervous, city-bred child,” accompanied by his father, two brothers, and friends. They came to the woods with expectations of scenery and seclusion—the usual reasons. Within hours, the one thing Donn Fendler would be seeking was another living soul.

Sandy Stream Pond is one of Thoreau’s many “fragments of a broken mirror” visible from the top of Mt. Katahdin. I have never not seen a moose at Sandy Stream Pond.

Sandy Stream Pond is one of Thoreau’s many “fragments of a broken mirror”
visible from the top of Mt. Katahdin. I have never not seen a moose at Sandy Stream Pond.

It was July, but fog veiled the peak, and Donn described the air as “cold and shivery.” He and a friend, Henry, quickened their pace, eager to reach the summit, leaving Donn’s father far down the trail. Thick clouds closed in around them. Henry wanted to wait for an adult to guide them. Donn, teeth chattering, was in a hurry to descend.

His first mistake was to give his sweatshirt to Henry, leaving himself with only a thin fleece-lined windbreaker; he wanted Henry to keep warm while waiting. His second mistake was not to listen to Henry, who told him he was being rash. The third mistake, understandable in the swirling mist, was to go the wrong way.

The trail vanished. Donn Fendler was not seen again for nine days…

A relative of mine plays a small part in the story at this point. In 1939 my grandmother was a young nurse at the hospital in Millinocket. She packed Dr. Young’s medical bag, just before he hurried off to treat Donn. “I would have been there if there’d been room in the canoe,” she once told me. The only reason she didn’t go was because the doctor was the size of a small elephant…

Donn’s misadventures, right up to the moment he stumbled barefoot out of the wilderness and was treated by Dr. Young, are described in his book Lost on a Mountain in Maine.

A Letter From Bradford Washburn

Many years ago, Brad Washburn received an early draft of North to Katahdin along with a request to supply a short promotional blurb, should he deem the manuscript worthy. The following letter was the result.

Dr. Bradford Washburn was Director Emeritus of the Boston Museum of Science, a Life Trustee of the Mount Washington Observatory and, as the letter indicates, a charming curmudgeon.

Dear Eric:

Despite my 91 years, I’ve never been so busy in my life, working on a report about snow depth on the summit of Mount Everest and finishing a little book about our first ascent of the West Buttress of Mount McKinley, exactly 50 years ago July 10.

So, when I received your 260-page manuscript, I just exclaimed inwardly : “What in Hell am I going to do with all this?”

But, because you’ve spent so much time at the “OBS,” I decided that I just HAD to dig into it at least a bit, and somehow say something nice, no matter what!!

A few delightful hours later, I turned to page 261 and that was, alas, the end.

There are so many fascinating aspects to this book that I scarcely dare to try to summarize them, for fear that I’ll omit something very important. Then, all of a sudden, I realized that I like the way that you write and the whole book is important. Indeed, you’re something of a philosopher as well as a weather-man.

The Appalachian Trail and Mount Katahdin have just been names: You’ve brought them both to life for me. You told me that mountains are just like people: They‘re born, get old and die—with often thrilling lives. You gave me good advice, if I ever was chased by a bear. I learned about the wonders of Baxter Park and lots of other things that I ought to’ve known about for years. When I turned page 261, I was frustrated that there weren’t any more. I really like the things that you say, and how you say them.

Best wishes to the guys at the Obs.

Very Sincerely Yours,
Bradford Washburn

North to Katahdin