Dancing Hawks

AMC Outdoors, November 2006

Katahdin. Photo: Jerry MonkmanLegend and lore from Maine's highest mountain

In Penobscot mythology, the hero Gluskabe undertook a mighty journey to Katahdin, where the Great Spirit taught him everything—fishing, hunting, planting, ethics—he would ever need to know. Gluskabe in turn brought the knowledge back to his people. Natives called Katahdin “the place where earth meets sky,” a mountain both revered and feared for its power. An extraordinary landmark, it dominates the relatively flat landscape near the confluence of two major tributaries of the Penobscot River.

Over the centuries, millions have come to embrace Maine’s tallest peak as a sacred place for hiking, camping, paddling, and quiet contemplation. And since the days of Gluskabe, a few special people and events have played a role in further defining Katahdin’s mystique. From sporting-camp pranks to feats of conservation, from survival stories to tragic deaths, author John W. Neff shares the tales of the mountain in his new AMC book, Katahdin: An Historic Journey—Legends, Explorations, and Preservation of Maine’s Highest Peak published by AMC Books.

The Remarkable Survival of Donn Fendler
Few stories of the region have stirred the public as much as that of the 12-year-old Boy Scout from Rye, N.Y., who was lost on Katahdin’s vast Tableland in July 1939. Separated from his father, brothers, and several friends, Fendler began an extraordinary nine-day odyssey.

The saga began when Donn and his friend Henry Condon crossed the Tableland on the Hunt Trail and neared the summit. Thick clouds quickly lowered, reducing visibility to nearly zero. Neither boy wanted to stay long, but Henry was eager to wait and greet a hiker nearing the summit from the Knife Edge side. Donn, on the other hand, decided to head back down the trail to meet others in his party still ascending. In a breath of a moment, Donn wandered off the trail and lost his way. He kept going, thinking at any moment he would come upon his father and the others.

The clouds thickened, sleet began to fall, and the boy kept steadfastly on. After wandering about the Tableland and passing near the head of the Saddle Slide, Donn finally realized he had to find a stream or tote road he could follow to safety. After he stumbled down through scrub growth, the terrain began to level out and it was here he spent a frightening and uncomfortable night. In the morning, after overcoming a bout with hallucinations, he found and followed an old abandoned tote road along one of the branches of Wassataquoik Stream. Sometime that morning he lost his sneakers, which had been ripped badly during his descent the day before.

Over the course of the ensuing week, Donn slept fitfully wherever he could find shelter and by day continued to follow other stream branches, one in which he lost his dungarees. Through it all he found solace and inner strength in constant prayer and his strong reliance upon God. He endured swarms of black flies and mosquitoes, more hallucinations, frightening dreams, and fits of crying when matters seemed unbearable. He found berries but was often hesitant to eat them unless he felt certain they were not poisonous. Though often discouraged, his spirits were kept up by an expectation that he might come across a fisherman looking for a good trout pool along the stream.

Eventually, Donn lost all track of time. His legs took a beating—from  cratches, sprains, bleeding, insect bites, and clinging bloodsuckers. On the sixth day he heard the sound of a motor above him, but he was too hidden by forest canopy to be seen by what was likely a search plane. It became more and more difficult to move his legs but he walked on, buoyed by the possibility of finding an inhabited cabin. He came to believe that he was never quite fully alone, that a guardian angel was present and watching over him.

After nine days, nearing the very end of his endurance, Donn reached the east branch of the Penobscot near where the stream he had been following joins the river. When Donn looked across he could see the cabins of the Lunksoos Sporting Camps. His weak yells were finally heard by Nelson McMoarn, the shocked proprietor of the camps who rushed across in a canoe to rescue the boy. The word quickly spread that Donn Fendler had been found alive.

The search-and-rescue attempts organized the first day of Donn’s  isappearance had been almost abandoned by the time he was found, but his family and thousands of people following the news reports had never given up hope.

Donn told the story of his extraordinary saga in Lost on a Mountain in Maine, which he wrote with the help of Joseph B. Egan not long after his rescue. The book became a classic and is still read by adults and schoolchildren throughout New England and across the world.

After many radio and print interviews, including Life magazine, Donn became a national hero, then enlisted in the Navy and served in World War II and Vietnam. He lives in Maine and continues to tell his story and share the lessons he learned with Scout troops and schoolchildren throughout the state. His adventure continues to inspire people who celebrate the strength of the human spirit in the face of what appear to be unbeatable odds.

A Tragedy on the Knife Edge
One of the most notable and tragic search-and-rescue incidents occurred in October, 1963. Although the park was officially closed, two Massachusetts women, Helen Mower and Margaret Ivusic, received permission to climb Katahdin from Chimney Pond where they were camping. It was a beautiful, crisp autumn day, and everything went well as they ascended the Cathedral Trail, lunched on the summit, and started across the Knife Edge toward Pamola Peak.

Ivusic chose to leave the Knife Edge, intending to descend to Chimney Pond more directly. Mower, apprehensive of following such a course, returned on the marked trail to Pamola and down the Dudley Trail to the campground. The two maintained occasional voice contact until Mower learned that her friend was trapped and could not go up or down. Mower continued on to Chimney Pond to get help.

When Ranger Ralph Heath returned after a day of trail work, he was also able to establish voice contact with Ivusic from the edge of the pond. His original intention was to begin a rescue attempt at first light but a sudden change in the weather prompted him to try to reach her during the night.

After failing in that effort, Heath left again early the next morning with food and equipment (having already radioed for backup assistance). Complicating matters was the onset of a severe snowstorm that quickly accelerated to blizzard conditions. Now Heath, likely having reached Ivusic, was trapped as well. The backup rangers tried valiantly to reach the site but were driven back. Overwhelmed with sorrow, the rescuers finally abandoned their efforts after almost a week of worsening conditions and a number of rescue attempts.

In the spring when park personnel began the grim task of locating and evacuating the bodies, they discovered that Heath had, indeed, reached Ivusic and had been able to dress her in warm clothing. We can’t fully know what happened that day, as Heath died in his valiant attempt to save Ivusic’s life. Ralph Heath’s willingness to sacrifice his own life for another’s is still celebrated, and his memory is still held in deep respect by park personnel.

There have been many other climbers who have looked down to Chimney Pond from the Knife Edge and been lured into thinking they could take an easy shortcut directly to the campground. But there is no shortcut unless one is an experienced technical climber with a great deal of mountaineering training and the proper equipment.

The Great Maine
Elephant Hunt
When neophyte “sports” from the city came to the old sporting camps for a wilderness experience, there were always some experienced fellows unable to resist the temptation to play tricks on them. These pranksters didn’t lack for especially gullible victims who were fair game for their unique brand of goodnatured fun.

During one group’s stay at the Joe Francis Camps at the foot of Debsconeag Falls on the Penobscot West Branch near the turn of the 19th century, the ultimate practical joke was played on an unsuspecting victim, and his friends enjoyed a heap of fun at his expense. During most of their week’s stay the men diligently rose early each morning and, after enjoying a substantial breakfast, spent most of the day hunting for moose, the great monarchs of the North Woods. At the end of the day, after a hearty dinner back at the camp, they gathered around the great fireplace, warmed themselves in its glow and heat, and swapped stories of their adventures.

One of the group was especially eager in his zeal that year to land a moose in order to return home triumphantly. Unfortunately, this gentleman was so near-sighted that when he got within shooting distance of a moose he was unable to complete his mission. This combination of circumstances only encouraged his hunting buddies to decide that he was the obvious choice to be the victim of that year’s prank.

Those who were in on the joke began to spread the rumor that glimpses had been caught of a huge gray moose not far from the camp, and that the mysterious creature had been able so far to thwart any attempt to shoot it. Each night another would tell of a sighting, reporting that the gigantic gray moose was approaching closer and closer to the sporting camp itself.

Soon the near-sighted fellow’s blood began to boil, and his desire to possess this enormous creature reached fever pitch. Finally one evening at dusk the other hunters encouraged the poor fellow to go out and try his luck since the moose might not be able to see his approach in the gathering darkness.

What the unsuspecting victim did not know was that one of their number had carefully smuggled into his trip supplies an immense paper elephant such as was often used for big city parades. Also included was a goodly supply of firecrackers. Led by a guide, our nearsighted hunter cautiously paddled along the Debsconeag Deadwater with his senses at full alert. Lingering behind in other canoes were his friends, waiting with much tittering for the unfolding of events. Suddenly the guide stopped paddling and asked for complete silence—not even a whisper—in order not to scare away the great moose. Shortly, as they drifted closer to shore, he motioned for the victim to prepare to shoot.

One of his friends was to later report that “when the canoe stole softly up the shore, the very faint light of the moonless evening showed to his excited vision a monster which looked so enormous that [he might have been able to hit it even if] his gun was pointed the other way.”

All at once, the guide signaled that the moment to take action had arrived, and the man took aim and blazed away with one, two, and even three shots. To his astonishment the creature seemed to simply collapse. He quickly paddled to the shore, jumped from the canoe, and rushed forward to discover the paper elephant in a heap at his feet. At this startling discovery his friends set off the firecrackers from their canoes to celebrate their successful ruse.

Amid much laughter and frivolity, the remnants of the “great gray moose” were taken back to the camp lodge and hung on the wall for posterity. Around the fire that evening the victim took it all with good humor and laughed as heartily as the others over this amazing climax to his week in the great North Woods. As the years went by the tale of the hunt for the monstrous gray moose never failed to entertain the guests as they gathered each evening before the blazing fire to tell their tall tales.

The End of the Trail
The Katahdin region already had an Appalachian Trail when a group of people, primarily from the mid-Atlantic states, proposed in the 1920s to cut a trail along the ridges and mountain tops of the Appalachian mountain chain from Georgia to Mount Washington. An earlier trail by that name in the Wassataquoik Valley was cut in the 1880s from Katahdin Lake to the Great Basin. The use of that trail gradually diminished, and was eventually abandoned altogether as folks began to approach the Great Basin in the 1920s via what we now call the Roaring Brook Road.

The northern terminus of the new Appalachian Trail (AT) was originally to be the summit of Mount Washington. But when Mainer Myron H. Avery was elected chairman of the Appalachian Trail Conference he convinced the trail planners that the northern terminus should be the summit of Katahdin in his native state. When the change was finally approved, Avery and a cadre of friends began to lay out and cut the trail through Maine. They began on an August morning in 1933 at the top of Katahdin and over several seasons completed the work to the New Hampshire border across some 260 miles of mostly wilderness.

For the first five miles or so the AT utilized the famous Hunt Trail along the Hunt Spur to Katahdin Stream Campground. From there it followed old tote roads to Daicey Pond, wound down along Nesowadnehunk Stream, and finally crossed the West Branch of the Penobscot. At first that crossing was over an old dam at Nesowadnehunk Falls. Later, in 1936 the Patten CCC crew built a suspension bridge and hikers could safely cross the churning waters of the river.

Since then, thousands have made their way along the AT to experience one of the great thrills of their lives, climbing Katahdin. Some accomplish that feat in one season; others spend a number of years, even a lifetime, hiking one section at a time; some hike portions with no intention of hiking the whole 2,167 miles.

The hiker begins to see Katahdin from the 100-Mile Wilderness while traversing Gulf Hagas Mountain, the first peak in the White Cap Range, and then notices it dramatically at the Rainbow Ledges. After crossing the Penobscot West Branch at Abol Bridge, the mountain looms dramatically as one reaches Baxter State Park. One of the most memorable views is from the Daicey Pond Campground where the Appalachian Trail Conference held its popular biennial meeting in 1939. After a breathtaking view from the old lumber camp field at Katahdin Stream Campground the final 5.2-mile climb to the summit begins. Earl Shaffer was the first to hike the entire length of the trail from Georgia to Maine in one season in 1948. He turned around 50 years later and did it again in 1998 at the age of 79. Earl wrote this poem about Katahdin the night before his final climb:

You love it and you fear it
It is big and harsh and high
A mass of ancient granite
Towering into the sky
From the Indians who revered it
To the climber of today
A symbol of a spirit
That can never pass away

- Exclusive excerpt from a new book by John W. Neff

Photo: Jerry Monkman