Harry Clar

(This column was first published in the January 29, 1996 Buffalo News.)


     Last summer Harry Clar of Rochester was honored with the Distinguished Service Award of the Finger Lakes Trail Club. A 30 year member of the Genesee Valley Hiking Club, through the 1960s and 1970s Clar helped build and maintain sections of the Finger Lakes Trail that crosses the Southern Tier from Allegany State Park to the Catskills.

     Then in 1981 Clar and his friend Ed Willis mapped, cleared, and marked a 22 mile trail high above the east bank of the Genesee River through Letchworth Park. Today called the Letchworth Branch Trail, it is the longest section of the Finger Lakes Trail without a road crossing. Unfortunately Willis died in 1991 but Clar continues to maintain this trail, now mostly alone.

     One chilly Sunday morning recently I met Harry Clar in Letchworth Park to begin a short hike along his trail. Rose Levin of Williamsville, Clarıs sister, had helped to arrange our meeting.

     Although there was only one person waiting at the trailhead, I could not believe that this was Mr. Clar, an 84 year old advertising executive. The leathery quality of his handsome face was from time spent outdoors and his facial creases were grin lines rather than signs of age. I envied the shock of white hair that bounded his high forehead. His back was ramrod straight and, when I shook his powerful hand, I knew that this was not a gentleman with whom I would wish to arm wrestle.

     But this was indeed the modern trail blazer, arguably the best representative of those many fine volunteers to whom we hikers owe such deep gratitude.

     We donned our packs and set off south along the trail, Clar striding ahead carrying a saw and paraphernalia to repair one of his trail registers.

     It was a perfect morning for hiking. Light snow dusted the ground and a few flakes fell lazily through the trees. The greens of conifers and Christmas ferns were the only non-neutral colors; all else was brown or gray or black. Through breaks in the hardwoods we would catch an occasional glimpse of the gorge below and the colorless Genesee on which rafts of Canada geese paddled. The forest silence was periodically broken at one end of the scale by chickadee and kinglet calls, at the other by distant booms of huntersı guns.

     Clar repaired the register, stapling to it a plastic coated trail map. He also stopped frequently to bend back or saw off encroaching tree limbs. Park employees remove the larger deadfalls that sometimes topple across the trail. But the winding path was largely clear and open and in this section had few of the ups and downs I had experienced on its southern section. I had hiked it last spring surveying warblers.

     After an hourıs hike we sat on a dry log to eat lunch. Clar drew from his pack a portable phone. ³ This is,² he said, ³my one compromise with my family. I carry it in case I run into difficulty, but actually I just keep in contact.² After he had spoken briefly to Mrs. Clar, I asked if he had ever really needed the phone. ³In a lifetime of hiking,² he responded, ³my worst injury has been a bee sting.²

     That lifetime of hiking began during the 1930s Depression with a stint in the Civil Conservation Corps. Interestingly Clarıs employment was in Idaho and not here in this park whose eastern side owes so much to CCC workers.

     I salute Harry Clar for his years of dedication and service, and I hope in the years ahead to rejoin him often on his trail. ‹ Gerry Rising