Dick Griffith might not be the last great American adventurer, but if such a tally is ever made he certainly deserves a place in the top two or three. For more than six decades, Griffith has been exploring wild and rugged corners of the world, and on the cusp of 86 he's still not finished.
A new book, Canyons and Ice, The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith by Kaylene Johnson, traces the paths he’s blazed down the San Juan, Green and Colorado rivers, the Urique River in Mexico, and across Alaska. While some of his river trips came in the wake of others, Griffith set a high bar for his approach and method to exploring these areas.
Griffith was diagnosed with a heart murmur when he tried to enlist in the Army after graduating high school in 1945. That diagnosis might have slowed anyone else, but instead Griffith seemed to use it as a motivation to explore the West. Much of his desire stemmed no doubt from the books he read as a child growing up in Colorado and Wyoming, places that at the time were rugged and demanding, places that forced you to rely on your own skills.
He read about Major John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Colorado River, as well as solo river trips down the Green River taken by Buzz Holstrom, and Frederick Dellenbaugh's narrative from Powell's second trip down the Colorado River, A Canyon Voyage. Arctic expeditions also were part of his reading list, and Griffith read about explorers Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Sir John Franklin, and Robert Peary. All these books and stories provided ample grist for the wanderlust that flowed through Griffith's veins his entire life.
His journeys were not designed to accomplish anything more than to place him in the middle of the wilderness. He also didn't necessarily see his treks as fodder to earn him a place in history.
"Lasting fame is a fragile thing -- it sometimes has little to do with the magnitude of the achievement but rather with being fortunate to do the right thing at the right time -- or to die in sufficiently romantic circumstances to capture the imagination of the public," he wrote in his journal in 1979 during a 200-mile trek from Nuiqsut to Anaktuvuk Pass.
In piecing together Griffith's story, Ms. Johnson spent untold hours not just interviewing him, but also going through the journals he kept during many of his adventures as well as many of the letters and journals kept by Griffith's wife, Isabelle. How Isabelle endured her husband's lengthy trips -- most measured in weeks -- while she stayed home was explained in a letter she wrote a friend when her husband set off in 1991 to "poach" an unpermitted trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park in a small packraft: "...who can lock the wind in a closet? I never try."
In Griffth's wake have come many other adventurers seeking to explore the country's wild places. Most recently, Andrew Skurka has gained well-deserved attention for his circumnavigation of Alaska on foot, ski, and raft. But no one, it seems, has yet amassed the number of treks -- both solo or with a companion or two -- that Griffith has.
Down through the years, Griffith has floated down the Green River from Green River, Wyoming, to the confluence with the Colorado outside of Moab, Utah, and on through today’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and through the Grand Canyon before the Glen Canyon Dam, and Lake Powell, existed. He and Isabelle, who joined him on one of his Green River trips, also traveled to Mexico to float the Urique River, an adventure that turned out much more difficult than they both imagined because of the rocky nature of the river course. Indeed, it took two trips for Griffith to succeed in navigating that then-remote waterway.
Not long after the couple moved to Alaska in the 1950s, Griffith looked out across the wild and remote expanse and didn't hesitate to set out on foot, ski, and raft to explore it. In the decades that followed their arrival in the state he has tackled the backcountry more than a dozen times, covering thousands of miles of that rugged and wondrous landscape.
Those Alaskan trips left Griffith not only with many stories to tell and newfound friends, but with near fatal encounters with the bitterly cold temperatures. One trip left him with severe frostbite on the back of his legs and butt that required substantial surgeries and left him joking that "they amputated my butt.” Other trips featured encounters with rabid foxes, the loss of a small wood stove he used to heat his tent at the end of a sub-zero day on the trail, and needing to keep a wary eye on polar bears.
Griffth also regularly confounded younger competitors in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic race, an adventure race that leads participants 150-250 miles. In 2004, at the age of 78, Griffith became the oldest entrant to complete the route, and three years later he put his name in the record book again for becoming the oldest to complete the "Master's Division" race. Since the race was first run in 1982, he's finished it 17 times, another record.
"Knowing him, I probably wouldn't question anything he says," says Roger Siglin, a former superintendent of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. "My most memorable meeting with him was on a 3,000-mile snowmobile trip three of us were doing from Ft. Yukon in Alaska to Resolute Bay in the high Arctic of Canada. We had made a mistake following a graded snow road on the edge of Franklin Bay on our way to Paulutuk.
"We were 25 miles north of our planned route and saw a lone skier just crossing the road we were on. I had talked to him previously about his trip and immediately told my companions that is Dick Griffith," recalls Siglin. "It was a surprise for us and him because he was also off his planned route along the coast. He was glad to see us because he had been unable to find enough driftwood to keep his little tent stove going and complained about being cold. We gave him some of our wood and food supply and after a brief conversation parted company. "
Ms. Johnson's words are supported with photos from Griffith's personal collection. Some, dating to 1948 when he made his first river trip down the San Juan River, have been remarkably restored to the point where they look as if they were taken yesterday.
"The photos were not touched up. They were, however, filthy after years in a shoe box," the author says. "So the old slides were professionally scanned in Ohio with a drum scanner that dipped them in a solution to get rid of all the dirt. Then the scanner camera shot the slide through the solution itself, and the results were phenomenal -- even picked up detail that Dick didn't know was there.
"For example, the photo on page 5 (of the Griffith homestead in southern Wyoming) revealed the 6-volt power charger, in this case because the cardboard holder around the image was removed for scanning. Dick was delighted, but the process was expensive!"
Griffith, who will turn 86 next month, still volunteers regularly at the Eagle River Nature Center in Chugach State Park in Alaska to work on trails, bridges, and outhouses. This September he plans to run the Colorado through Grand Canyon National Park yet again.
"His most recent Grand Canyon trip was last January (2012)," says Ms. Johnson, "and Grand Canyon historian Tom Martin had this to say: 'This January while the Grand Canyon History Symposium was underway at the South Rim of the Park, 84-year-old Dick Griffith was out making Grand Canyon history yet again. Dick and a small group of friends launched from Lee’s Ferry for another river run through Grand Canyon by boat. Sixty-two years after his first run of Lava Falls, Dick now holds the record for the longest span of Grand Canyon river running. I hope to see Dick on the Grand for many more years to come. . . ."
Along with The Last Voyageur: Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West, and The Seventymile Kid: The Lost Legacy Of Harry Karstens And The First Ascent Of Mount McKinley, Canyons and Ice fills out a worthy triology of wilderness adventure stories.