Legend of the Wilds
Local woman chronicles an Alaska folk hero
Author Kaylene Johnson poses in front of a cabin in the Chugach Mountains. Johnson recently completed a biography of Dick Griffith, a longtime Eagle River Nature Center volunteer and member whose adventures are legendary in Alaska backcountry circles.
Dick Griffith/Kaylene Johnson
How do you tell the story of a legend? If you’re author Kaylene Johnson, you ask him.
Johnson, of Eagle River, recently collaborated with Alaska folk hero Dick Griffith on a new book called “Canyons and Ice,” which chronicles the modern-day adventurer’s many travels across some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet.
“It seemed like the story needed to be told,” said Johnson during an interview with she and Griffith at Johnson’s Birchwood home.
Griffith, now 85, kept meticulous diaries — 500 single-spaced typed pages worth — from the time he began to explore the canyons of the Southwest as a young man in his early 20s through solo Arctic treks and Alaska walkabouts that continued well into his eighth decade.
“That helped a lot,” she said.
Johnson first met Griffith in 2010, and shortly after the idea of writing a book about Dick’s life began to take shape. Johnson — who has written five books about Alaska, including a New York Times bestseller about Sarah Palin — was working in the Bush at the time, so she spent her off hours pouring over Griffith’s copious notes.
What she read was nearly unbelievable.
Griffith’s journals recount in vivid detail his early explorations of the Grand Canyon and Mexico’s Barranca Del Cobre, along with his later explorations of Alaska. He used his feet, ingenuity and often-makeshift boats — Griffith is often called “the grandfather of packrafting” — to travel the canyons, while in the Arctic he either walked or skied.
Among Griffth’s accomplishments include becoming one of the first to successfully float the Grand Canyon, when he, his future wife Isabelle and their friend Johnny Schlump became the 144th, 145th and 146th people to make the journey in 1960. Griffith also made several remarkable trips in Alaska, including walking the length of the Arctic coast from Unalakleet to Hudson Bay in several epic journeys that between 1985 and 2000.
After reading Griffith’s diaries, Johnson set out on her own epic task of figuring out what stayed in the book and what had to be cut.
“That was the hardest part, figuring out what to put in and what to leave out,” Johnson said.
Through her weekly discussions with Griffith, Johnson was able to pick the brain of the man who had penned the diaries.
Although a veteran of some incredibly dangerous episodes — the story about how he got his off-color nickname is particularly remarkable — Griffith said he never wanted to write his own book.
“It put the monkey on her back,” he said of giving Johnson the task.
Griffith took such good notes because there was often little else to do during his travels. Often pinned down by fierce Arctic storms, he had no choice but to let his mind reflect on his journey.
“There’s really nothing else to do but read and write,” he said.
Griffith said he no longer makes long walks into the woods alone, but he hasn’t exactly given up his wilderness ways. He still volunteers at the Eagle River Nature Center (he carries a chain saw in the back of his used Subaru) weekly, and admitted he hasn’t gotten over his fondness for sleeping outdoors — he sleeps in a tent outside his Hillside home in summer, then moves into his shop when the snow flies.
“It’s too warm inside,” he said.
Johnson and Griffith published the book themselves through Johnson’s Ember Press. Since it was released in July, the duo has been making appearances at local sporting goods and book stores, trying to drum up sales and hopefully get a national distributor.
Griffith will give a presentation about his travels at Jitters Coffee Shop in Eagle River on Saturday, Oct. 6 at 10 a.m. in honor of Alaska Book Week. Johnson will be on hand to sign books and meet with fans afterward. The book is available at several book stores, amazon.com and by visiting Johnson’s website, www.canyonsandice.com.
Whether the book becomes a best seller or not doesn’t matter much to Johnson. She said the experience of getting to know Griffith and his story was something she’ll cherish forever. And, she believes, the book — like its subject — will endure.
“It is part of Alaska history,” she said.
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727.