Griffith: "Every so often, it's just time to walk"

Wednesday, September 26, 2012 - 21:10

I hesitate to employ the trite phrase, “when they made Dick Griffith, they threw away the mold.” But it’s true in every respect. In our lifetimes it’s doubtful we’ll ever run across anyone like him.

I met the legendary adventurer one summer about 15 years ago at the Eagle River Nature Center while doing volunteer work. I’d always imagined that he was well over six-feet tall, and was surprised by his small stature. The white shock of hair was distinctive, and he stood solid and erect while wearing a pack that stretched more than half the length of his body and above his head. At that time he was about 70 years old, and his movement with the large pack appeared effortless.

“Heading back to the cabin?” I asked. His face quickly registered surprise and mild irritation. I was uncomfortable as I waited for an answer, and it never came. Not many people knew about the small cabin back then and even today, few people venture there. He bid goodbye to me and the other trail volunteers, then I watched him walk away, adding a few more miles to the thousands he had travelled in more than six decades of tromping across the Arctic.

Those Arctic adventures, spanning 6,000 miles along the coast from Alaska through Canada, along with his pioneering river-running exploits in the U.S. and Mexico, are skillfully documented and artfully told in a recently released book written by Kaylene Johnson entitled “Canyons and Ice”(Ember Press, Eagle River).

The book first follows his incredible river-running trips down Glenn and Colorado Rivers; and most notably, his 1952 rafting expedition down the Barranca del Cobre’s (Copper Canyon) Urique River in northwestern Mexico . Prior to his trip in 1952 in a small pack raft, no one had ever mapped or descended this river system.

Among his many accomplishments, Dick Griffith is considered the father of pack rafting, both inside and outside of Alaska.

During Griffith’s extensive Arctic sojourns, many of the Inupiat and Inuit Eskimos he encountered were awestruck by his wilderness prowess. In addition to those travels, mostly alone, Griffith participated in 17 Alaska Wilderness Races, each ranging from 150- 200 miles in length, and finished his last race at age 81. He hiked 300 miles from Glacier Bay to the mouth of the Copper River, trod over the Iditarod Trail’s 1,000 miles, and put on countless miles in Chugach State Park, including numerous Cross Pass Crossings.

Griffith is an every sense a true explorer. If he had lived hundreds of years ago, he would have been one of the people who insisted on setting out for uncharted lands. I’m certain he would have made untold discoveries. But he probably wouldn’t have achieved fame like Shackleton, Amundsen and many others, for Dick is a humble, modest person not interested in glory or fanfare. When I think of Dick Griffith, I’m reminded of the 1960s television series “The Guns of Will Sonnett,” in which actor Walter Brennan frequently exclaimed: “No brag, just fact.”

For outdoor enthusiasts, Griffith has been present in our consciousness for many years as we scaled the Chugach Mountains and forded the streams. I can’t recall how many times my buddies and I would say, “What would Griffith say about this?” Oftentimes we’d laugh at ourselves, saying: “he’d probably declare us a bunch of sissies and tell us to just keep moving.”

Hiking the 12 miles to the headwaters of Eagle River Valley, I’ve often found myself looking for him. I’d see footprints in the sandbars and wonder if they were his. I visited the old cabin once and thought I could sense his presence. In a strange way, I felt that the valley belonged to him.

Griffith is now 85 and I always look forward to one of his presentations, which he holds from time to time at the Nature Center or at Mountaineering Club of Alaska meetings. From the recent book I extracted what I call “Griffithisms,” which I think truly reflect his character:

• To his wife Isabelle during a raft trip in Mexico as he tried to coax her to jump across boulders on each side of a raging stream: “Don’t wait for the courage to come, because it won’t. Just jump!”

• About the monotony of Arctic terrain: “You need the capacity to see beauty even when it’s not pretty every day.”

• On aging and extending our lifespan through the rigors of walking: “Our two-legged structure is perfectly capable of carrying us to a distant grave--we simply have to be willing to walk there.”

• On a 300-mile ski trek in the Arctic: “Comfort is best when interspersed with moments of great discomfort.”

• To young participants during one of 17 Alaska Wilderness Races: “You may be fast, but you guys eat too much and don’t know nothing.”

• “Life is like a bicycle. When you stop moving, you tip over.”

Poet Robert W. Service referred to “the great alone,” but he only touched its fringes during the Klondike gold rush. Griffith penetrated far into its depths. He lived and breathed it for thousands of frozen miles. Why did he venture forth and what did he find?

We can only conjecture, and perhaps even Griffith himself cannot completely answer those questions. Was it God?

I only met him once, but I can clearly picture him answering the “why” question the way he did in the book, with an unassuming glance and a shrug of the shoulders: “Every so often, it’s time to walk.”


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. He can be reached at [email protected].

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