Lost On A Mountain In Maine: The Donn Fendler Story Envisioned On The Silver Screen

photographs and text by Ryan Cook

If you’re a born and bred Mainer, chances are you’ve read the book Lost On A Mountain In Maine.  The book has been a part of the Maine studies curriculum since 1972, so you may have read it as fourth grade student or were lucky enough to have Donn Fendler himself come to your class and recount his epic tale of survival.  If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s an inspiring true story of a young boy’s faith, determination and will to live as he became lost on Maine’s highest peak.  During the summer of 1939, 12-year-old Donn Fendler was hiking Mt. Katahdin when a fast approaching rain and sleet storm separated him from his family.  Nine days later he had traveled over eighty miles through the woods without pants, shoes, or any idea of where he was heading before finally making it out alive.  I could recount the epic journey he went through over the course of those nine days but I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience of reading his tale first hand.  It’s a quick read so do yourself a favor and get the book!

My parents introduced me to Donn’s book at age nine, just before my first Katahdin hike, and I instantly fell in love with the story.  As I began my ascent toward Baxter Peak all I could think of was how a young boy, just like myself, could possibly survive being lost on this herculean piece of rock. Even on a bright and sunny day the mountain felt as though it could swallow me whole.  I couldn’t fathom it during a rain and sleet storm, as had been the case during Donn’s climb. You can imagine my delight when my fourth grade teacher announced to the class that not only would we be reading Lost On A Mountain In Maine, but Donn would be making a personal appearance to recount his story firsthand.  From this moment on Donn’s story would be permanently fixed in the back of my mind.  Kids my age looked up to sports figures and movie stars, but not me. Donn was my kind of hero.

Seventy years after Donn had emerged from the woods the phone in my small Boston apartment rang.  On the other end of the line was Donn, returning a voicemail I had left inquiring about possibly adapting his story into a narrative feature film.  Donn informed me that countless people before me had come to him with the same idea, but none were successful.  The problem was that Donn had sold his own life rights over twenty years ago and was never able to get them back.  The three gentlemen who purchased the rights were unable to get the film made, yet would not give up the rights.  A CFO from Pepsi, a well-known Maine gubernatorial candidate, and countless others had tried to recover them, but still Donn’s rights remained out of reach. It came as no surprise that even though Donn invited me to come to his home and speak with him, he had little interest in talking about plans for a movie.  He was frustrated, aggravated and had put the thought behind him. Nevertheless, my production partner and I went and visited Donn.  It was a meeting we would never forget.

Two years later I stood in front of Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, waiting for Donn to arrive.  It was the premiere of our documentary Finding Donn Fendler, at the Maine International Film Festival.  The documentary not only tells of Donn’s journey through the Maine wilderness, but also covers the long and arduous process we went through in getting Donn’s rights back.  It was almost twenty months from our first meeting at Donn’s house, but we had done something that countless other had tried to do for over twenty years.  It took numerous phone calls, much negotiation and even having to battle a big shot producer from Texas who offered ten times the amount of money we could afford; but Donn’s rights were finally back in the proper hands.  Donn seemed to have a new energy about him, and for the first time in a while he had new hope that his story would someday appear on the silver screen.  We were proud, excited and on cloud nine. We knew it wouldn’t last long though, and that this was just the beginning.  If we were going to make a movie, the road ahead would certainly be a long one.

Today we continue to push forward with the same passion that inspired us the first time we read Donn’s book so many years ago.  We know this movie is going to be made the same way Donn survived his adventure through the woods — one step at a time.  We plan to begin phase one of production this summer and are reaching out to let supporters know of our goal. Although the book should forever be the first way young kids are introduced to his story, the cinematic medium will allow fans to truly experience Donn’s adventure in a new way and further preserve his story for generations to come. We believe that a feature film will not only give us the ability to introduce Donn’s story to new fans, but will also allow us to promote the state of Maine on a national, even international stage. However, at the end of the day we want to make this film for the thousands of people who have a connection to Donn’s story because, as Donn himself once said, “It’s not my story anymore, it belongs to the people of Maine.”

Editors note: I remember Donn Fendler’s visit to my fourth grade class!
The Maine is pleased to support Ryan, Donn and their whole team.
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lostonamountaininmainefilm.com to learn more.
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