Growing up in New York City in the 1950s, J.R. Harris developed a love of exploring when he got to go to work with his dad, a waiter in the dining car of a long-distance train.
He developed his love of the outdoors, however, in Scouting.
“I basically learned how to live outdoors,” he says of his first time at Scout camp. “And the idea that I could just live with whatever I was carrying in my pack was such a different concept from the life I had back in New York City. It fascinated me.”
Harris, now 78, is one of the world’s most prolific explorers. Not only has he hiked all over the United States, he’s also backpacked for weeks at time in remote locations in faraway lands like Greenland, the Amazon, the Andes, Tanzania and Tasmania.
But it was at Ten Mile River Scout Camp near Narrowsburg, N.Y., that Harris first experienced the backcountry. He would go on to spend multiple summers there, at a camp that felt it was on a completely different planet from the Queens neighborhood where he lived.
He mastered Scout things: how to track animals by their footprints and scat; how to tie bowline, timber hitch, and sheet bend knots; how to keep a fire alive in the driving rain; how to orient himself without a compass. These were not arbitrary skills, accumulated for some far-off time. No. There was a goal in mind: to get three merit badges — one each in Camping, Cooking and Pioneering — which encompassed the skills he needed to be outdoors and in the wild.
A drive to explore
After graduating from Queens College, where he studied psychology, in 1966, he immediately felt the need to go on an adventure. So, he drove his Volkswagen to a town called Circle, Alaska, a journey that ended up taking two weeks.
It was during that time that he decided he wanted to be an explorer.
“Since 1966, I’ve done more than 50 multi-week treks,” he writes on his website. “During that time, I have faced terrible weather, hair-raising river crossings and wildlife encounters, but I’ve also beheld the awesome majesty and pristine beauty of our incredible planet.”
Sometimes, Harris will befriend people who live in remote areas, learning everything he can about their lives.
“People can’t believe that somebody would come all the way from New York City, for no other reason than because they were curious about their culture and wanted to see it firsthand,” he says.
Influencing a new generation of explorers
In 1993, Harris was elected into The Explorers Club, a prestigious community that has been supporting scientific expeditions of all disciplines since it was formed in 1904. Its members include Eagle Scout paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, Eagle Scout astronaut Scott Parazynski, marine scientist Ellen Prager and renown scuba diver Karin Lynn.
(The Explorers Club is also a major contributor to the BSA’s Exploring merit badge.)
Harris is now on the club’s board of directors.
In 2018, he was added to The HistoryMakers, a non-profit dedicated to telling the stories of both well-known and unsung African Americans.
When he’s not exploring or running his business, Harris spends much of his time speaking to students in low-income areas to inspire them to get outdoors and, who knows, maybe become an explorer themselves.
“Until they actually see somebody who’s done it,” he says, “a lot of them don’t believe that it can be done.”