Volunteer Profile: Harland Polk

By Kathleen Lynch

Harland Polk was introduced to the eastern Sierra Nevada in 1950. He was 12 years old and riding in the back of a truck on a YMCA camping trip. Over nine days, he camped and hiked in Mammoth, Lone Pine, Tuolumne Meadows, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite Valley. It was the beginning of a lifetime of exploring what naturalist John Muir dubbed “the range of light.”

As a U.S. Marine, Harland returned to the Sierra to do a month of “cold weather training” below Sonora Pass. His first backpacking trip on the PCT was in 1985. His son showed an interest in backpacking, so Harland took him on the John Muir Trail section of the PCT. That trip turned out to be the first of many they did together.

The JMT wasn’t enough for Harland. He hiked most of the PCT from the Mexican border to Sonora Pass, mostly solo. In 1998, his solo-hiking career came to a grinding halt when he underwent open-heart surgery. Though his backpacking trips were over, he missed the Sierra. “I looked for something to do that would get me up there.”


Later that year, he and his wife made the trip to Ontario, California, for a PCTA Trail Fest. “We signed up for a couple seminars, talked to a few people, that’s when I got the idea of signing up as a volunteer. That summer, in one of the newsletters, I saw an advertisement for a trip in the Eastern Sierra, inviting people to do a week in the backcountry.”

His first trail maintenance project was 11 miles from the trailhead on the June Lake loop. “I worked a week. I was doing whatever I was told. Mostly moving rocks, water bars, brushing, trail treading, and a small piece of rerouting.”

Harland did two trips on the PCT that year, and for the past 15 years he has been with the PCTA Can Do Crew in the Inyo National Forest under the leadership of Paul Cardinet. At 77, Harland is still going strong with the PCTA Can Do Crew. These days you will find him cooking Thanksgiving dinner in the backcountry for trail crews.

Harland encourages people of all ages and physical capabilities to get on the trail, “It doesn’t make any difference what your physical capabilities, if you want to be outdoors, you can accomplish that.”

His advice to first timers is simple. “Just go with an open mind, pitch in and help, we teach people what to do, show them how to do it.”

Harland has survived open-heart surgery and arteriosclerosis in his legs. These days, he gets packed into the backcountry by mules. For him, trail work has become a way of life.

“I love the Sierra, doing trail work is a great way to enjoy the wilderness with others.”

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