Marcel Polak of Woodstock stands atop Saddleback Mountain in Sandy River Plantation during his trek of the Appalachian Trail. Submitted photo

WOODSTOCK —  “It was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life,” Woodstock resident Marcel Polak said of section hiking part of the Appalachian Trail.

The avid hiker started from South Kinsman Mountain in New Hampshire and hiked to the trail’s end at Mount Katahdin in Maine. With his wife, Emily, he’s climbed all 62 4,000-foot peaks in Maine and New Hampshire, mostly in the past couple of years.

His love for hiking and being outdoors in general have been lifelong, but are only a small part of his story.

When he was born in a hospital in France in 1949, no doctors or nurses were there to attend to his mother. Like his parents, Polak was not recognized as a citizen of any country.

“America was unique in having birthright citizenship,” Polak said. “If you are born in this country, it doesn’t matter what the status of your parents are, you are a citizen. That was not the case in many countries at the time, including France.”

He eventually obtained French citizenship.

Both of his parents were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. His mother was deported from Germany to a concentration camp in France. She escaped two camps and was able to survive the rest of the war.

He lost two grandmothers to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps.

In 1953, he came to the United States. His early childhood was spent in Brooklyn and Queens, New York.

In 1960, he became a naturalized American citizen.

Besides English, three other languages were spoken in his house. Polak’s primary language was French, but his parents also spoke Yiddish and German. He remains fluent in French today and can speak some German and Yiddish.

Polak benefited from a strong public education system in Brooklyn and Queens when he moved there at age 11. An important part of the public education system in New York City was attending Queens College of the City University of New York essentially free — $70 a year, plus costs for textbooks. He worked through college and graduated with no debt. Free education allowed Polak to figure out exactly what he wanted to do in life.

In college, he discovered two tracks, which would later “define his life.” The first was pottery. He had taken a ceramics class. The other was a class on winter ecology. Polak said part of it involved him going to the Adirondacks in upstate New York in the middle of winter to sample some lakes to determine why the fish were dying off.

They learned how to cross country ski by skiing to the lakes.

After graduating college, he followed up on his pottery interest and attended Brooklyn Museum Art School. Soon after he found an apprenticeship in Toronto.

“I learned the full range of how to run a business and how to produce pottery on a production scale,” Polak said.

After his apprenticeship, he was unsure that being a potter was something he wanted to do at that time in his life.

Fortunately, another opportunity came his way shortly. At the time, the National Parks Service was taking over some natural coastal areas in New York City called Gateway National Recreation Area, one of two in the country. He was hired as an interpretive naturalist at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. It was there that he discovered his passion for bird-watching and where he learned how to identify birds.

“It was a great job, I got to wear a Smoky the Bear hat. I also got to give tours of the bay,” he said.

Once he finished his job at the refuge, Polak was at a crossroads in his life and opportunities were wide open for him. He was still living at home and did not have the burden of college debt holding him back.

He heard about an outdoor education center in Ohio that had a graduate program. Attendees would serve on the staff of the center, receive training and could earn 10 graduate credits. Polak decided to go to Ohio and the decision proved to be life-changing. He met his wife, Emily, during the year he was there.

He returned to New York with Emily and began working at an environmental center there. From there, they moved to Maine in 1978. In 1979, they found their current spot on Cushman Hill Road in Woodstock. It was a small cottage with power but no plumbing. They decided to keep the house that way.

“We had kerosene lights, we got water from the spring and we used an outhouse,” Polak said. “Neither one of us had any debt so we could live on very little.”

His next goal was to find some kind of employment. He worked as a waiter at the Boiler Room restaurant in Woodstock, the Bethel Inn and the Sudbury Inn. Although he enjoyed waiting tables, Polak wanted to return to one of his passions. He left those jobs in 1984 after his daughter Rachel was born and renewed his interest of pottery. He started building a studio on a section of his property.

They ended up living in it and turning their cottage into a studio.

The location made Polak’s business challenging, though.

“Being a potter was not an easy job because you not only have to produce, but you also have to market. I was strong on the production side, but I was not particularly as good with marketing,” he said.

He relied on art shows to make a profit but realized having a child required more income.

He turned to brokering real estate, which related to his interest in community building.

Polak also had a strong interest in land conservation. He was one of the founders of the Mahoosuc Land Trust and its first part-time executive director. He was also the first executive director of the Norway-Paris Heritage Trust, now name Western Foothills Land Trust.

While serving as executive director of Mahoosuc Land Trust, went to Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, New Hampshire, commuted 400 miles round trip once a week for two years to finish his master’s degree. For his thesis, he came up with a land conservation strategy for Mahoosuc Lane Trust.

Next was a job working for the Appalachian Mountain Club as a field director for the upper Androscoggin Valley for more than six years. It was the only full-time job with benefits he’d had in his more than 40 years in the area. He co-founded the Androscoggin Source to the Sea Canoe Trek and collaborated with paper mills in Berlin, New Hampshire, Rumford and Jay to highlight water quality improvements in the Androscoggin River.

In the early 1990s he was elected to the SAD 44 board of directors.

He is also dedicated to the NorthStar Program, “a hands-on mentoring program” in its third year “that connects young people with caring adults through community engagement, cultural exchange, and adventure challenge and leadership. ”

Polak has been one of those mentors for students, taking them on canoe trips down the Androscoggin and on hikes on many area mountains.

He strongly believes that an excellent public education is critically important for students and for the future of the community.

Polak remains passionate about hiking and plans to conquer the remaining five 4,000-foot peaks in Vermont with Emily this summer.

Samuel Wheeler — 207-824-2444

[email protected]

Samuel Wheeler — 207-824-2444

[email protected]

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