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New book gives wilderness legend Dick Griffith attention he deserves

Craig Medred
Courtesy Kaylene Johnson

Many were the mistakes made and survived by Dick Griffith. They helped to make him what he is today at 85 -- an Alaska outdoor adventure legend. Griffith is what all the wannabes thought Chris McCandless, the dead "Alexander Supertramp" of the misleading book "Into the Wild" and the even more misleading movie of the same name, wanted to be. Over the decades, Griffith wandered off into the wilderness without a map many a time, sometimes without much in the way of gear either, and yet he always came back.

He has a book of his own out now: "Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith." It is a whole lot more interesting read than the McCandless book, which is really -- if you know a thing or two about psychology and read between the lines -- a nice description of the nightmare of adult-onset schizophrenia into which one young man stumbled. Griffith is no schizophrenic, though, as New York Times bestselling author Kaylene Johnson notes, there is "not much about Dick that is orthodox."

Johnson wrote the Griffith book based on his extensive journals and photographs. He has been out on the stump promoting it. It's a job at which Griffith, who has on occasion been described as "crusty," might not appear the best, but he is great at it. He showed up at a meeting of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA) earlier this week to talk about the book, sort of, and show a host of slides of places that no longer exist. They are gone beneath mountains of water, reservoirs more accurately, but they were, as depicted in Griffith's photos, some of the grandest country in all of the Americas before men came and built dams.

Griffith got to see things no one will ever see again because his wilderness wanderings started in big ways before he ever came to Alaska to pursue adventures that would go largely unnoticed for decades, and then leave others disbelieving that they had happened. Griffith hiked across the Brooks Range mountains from Kaktovik on the Bering Sea to Anaktuvuk Pass in 1959. Others would come along years later and proudly think themselves the first to complete that journey because, as with most things Griffith did, he never talked about them much.

He was, and is, old school. Even now when he lectures on his past, he comes across in a somewhat self-effacing way as if he, himself, would see anything otherwise as some sort of bragging. Griffith does not brag, though if he were of the modern school of adventure-chasers, he'd have plenty to brag about.

He's arguably crisscrossed more of the North on foot than any man alive. Some today think it a feat to hike the 1,000 miles of the historic Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome. Griffith trod that distance as a warm-up for bigger things. He didn't stop at the city of the Golden Sands, either. He kept going, exploring, pushing ever north and then east: First to Point Hope on the edge of the Bering Strait, then on to Barrow at the top of the world, and east to Barter Island near the U.S.-Canadian border, then following the edge of the sea on the ice across the Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories and Nunavut to Repulse Bay on the Atlantic Ocean.

'No pansy-ass bed-wetters'

Go look at a map. The distance across the top of the continent between Point Hope and the Atlantic is considerably greater than the distance across the middle of the continent from Seattle to Portland, Maine. And, of course, Griffith hiked in winter. "Easier," he'd tell you. The ground is frozen and you can pull a sled. "No pansy-ass bed-wetters" need apply is how Griffith friend Roman Dial, a professor at the Alaska Pacific University and something of an understudy might describe it. Griffith, in his day, was the classic hard man. He is only slightly mellower now that knee replacement surgery has slowed him down a half a step.

Johnson, in a prologue to the 280-page book, describes him a man who has covered 6,000 miles of the Arctic on foot, basically invented packrafting as a new form of travel and "whipped asses of the outdoor elite. He has little patience for gear snobs or those sporting the latest in trendy equipment." Griffith is tough and opinionated, and it would not be unfair to call him a little eccentric. He years ago, probably more than a decade now, penned the draft of a book on his own. Friends and acquaintances (this one included) tried for years to get him to sit down with an editor and publisher to hammer what he had into a book. The draft was damn good. And here's what happened to it as described by Johnson:

"We chatted and met on occasion for black coffee and pilot bread topped with peanut butter and currant jelly. He shared more of his journals, and then one day he told me, 'You do it.' He wanted his book authored by someone other than himself. And he wanted it written in third person. For a long time, he didn't want to use his last name. For all his sometimes brusque bravado, he is basically a shy man."

The truth is probably more that Griffith is a product of his time. There was a period in America when talking about yourself was considered bad form, and there were established rules for public behavior. As Griffith confessed to the MCA group, many of whom know him well, he threw future wife Isabelle out of his boat after friend Jim Gifford abandoned a planned 1,200-mile float across the Southwest to retrace Major John Wesley Powell's journey from Green River, Wyo., downstream to the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon.

It just wasn't "proper," Griffith said, for an unmarried man and an unmarried woman to be trekking across the wilderness without a chaperone in those days. The year was 1949. The inflatable raft had only just been invented. Griffith would one day become a champion of inflatables, but not then. He took off downriver in his homemade wooden dory. Isabelle, who was along mainly because she had financed the journey, was in a military surplus raft with Gifford. They took turns rowing the boats. Gifford eventually smashed and sank the dory after Griffith led their party into aptly named "Disaster Falls" in Lodore Canyon on the Green River.

Gifford was flushed through Lodore after losing the boat. Dick and Isabelle found him luckily alive downstream and pulled him out. He had not been wearing a life jacket, nor had he been forewarned as to what he was about to get into. Griffith's only "map" for the trip was a book first published in 1871, Frederick Dellengaugh's "A Canyon Voyage: The Narrative of the Second Powell Expedition." "Canyons and Ice" details how Griffith and Gifford later spent considerable time studying the book before Griffith concluded they'd sunk "at almost the exact spot where Major Powell had lost one of his boats 80 years before."

Powell regrouped and went on. So did Griffith. It's what a man does. It is sort of the story of his life. When disaster strikes, you pick up the pieces, put back together what you can and keep going. And as Griffith has himself many times observed, it usually isn't the first accident that gets you in trouble in the wilderness, it's the cascade of mistakes that sometimes follow. Griffith has lived to a ripe old age (Isabelle is deceased) by figuring out how to dodge that cascade.

A very good dog

There is a lesson there for anyone venturing into Alaska, the last great American wilderness. You do what you need to do to survive. Sometimes it's not pretty, and sometimes you will suffer, and sometimes you will shed a tear, and right here it should be left to Griffith and Johnson to tell a story that if you are human -- and especially if you know Dick Griffith for the old softy he is beneath that thick hide -- will make you cry:

The dearth of animals to hunt in the (Brooks Range) mountains forced Dick and the dogs back out onto the coastal plain to look for food (in 1959). They were all growing weak with hunger and Pup continue to lag behind. After 20 miles of travel, Dick finally spotted a bull moose in the distance. He worried that if the dogs saw a meal on the hoof, they might take chase. So he went to get Pup. By the time he had the dogs in hand, the moose had left the area. He tied Blackie and Whitie, but left Pup untied figuring the dog was too worn down to leave his companions. Then he went looking for the bull. It was late in the evening when Dick returned to the dogs empty-handed. Once again Pup had disappeared -- along with the tent and cooking pots. Dick was furious with Pup and with himself for not restraining the dogs.

"It would be easy for a person to go 'off his rocker' here", Dick wrote. "It is miles from nowhere, and the mosquitoes are driving us crazy."

It began to rain and without the tent, Dick could only curl up in his sleeping bag and wait for morning. By 3:00 a.m., too cold and wet for sleep, he got up and went looking for the moose. When he returned, again unsuccessful, Pup was lying in camp asleep.

Meanwhile, it began to snow in the mountains and Dick could see the weather was headed in their direction. It was time to move again, but Pup refused. Exasperated, Dick took the pack and left the dog behind.

As it began to snow, poor visibility made hunting impossible. He set up camp at a tributary of the Shaviovik River. By the next morning, Pup had arrived, and so had three inches of fresh snow. Even with the snow, there were no signs of game, not a single track.

"We can't move out of here until we get something to eat," Dick wrote. For the first time, he felt overwhelmed and unsure where this all might end.

"I'm hundreds of miles from anyplace, overextended, and way beyond my abilities. I'm in big trouble. I would bag this trip in a heartbeat if I could. I don't belong here," he wrote.

Then he made a choice reminiscent of his youth (on a dirt-poor farm) in Wyoming, when his father had forced him to put down his own horse and dog.

Dick shot Pup.

He skinned the dog, built a fire and spent the day making dogmeat jerky.

"The dogs needed the meat as badly as I did," he remarked. Then he fed himself and the dogs their first meal in many miles.

While Pup had been less than useful as a pack dog, he was now providing life-sustaining nourishment until they could find game. Dick now carried the gear from Blackie's and Whitie's packs so that neither dog had to carry much -- at least until he could get more food in their bellies.

That last line tells you all you need to know about Griffith. A few days later, he and the dogs, luckily, stumbled into a band of caribou. Griffith shot one, everyone ate, and they went on. He'd eventually lose both of the dogs. Blackie wandered off, and when Griffith went back to hunt for the dog he found it dead and swarmed by mosquitoes.

"I brushed the mosquitoes of his nose for the last time and walked away," he wrote in his journal.

'Old Black-Ass'

Griffith nursed Whitie on. They hit a sheet of ice four miles wide covered in water. It had to be crossed. Dick waded in. Whitie didn't want to go.

"Dick went ahead knowing the dog would have to make his own way," Johnson writes. "When Dick reached the other side, he built a fire, made camp and waited for the dog to arrive. The dog never showed. Dick hoped that Whitie had decided to return to an earlier moose carcass, where he could eat and rest. But deep down, Dick realized that in the dog's weakened state, Whitie had probably drowned."

Griffith would blame himself for what happened to that dog for a long time, but he would eventually find a photo in "Life" magazine of a white dog on the tundra close to Lake Peters in the Brooks. Griffith investigated. He even tracked down the photographer. As it turned out, Whitie had somehow made it back to a Naval Arctic Research camp where he was adopted. "Whitie had presumably survived on the carcasses of the caribou and moose Dick had shot along the way," Johnson writes.

Whitie was a survivor, like Dick Griffith, whose Alaska stories really only begin here.

"Tell us about how you got the name 'Old Black-Ass'," someone in the standing-room-only crowd at the MCA asked him when he was done showing his slides. The nickname dates to a nasty experience Griffith had with frostbite.

"Buy the book," he said.

It's worth repeating: "Buy the book." It's a damn fine $24.95 read. It'll teach you something about Alaska, and about what it means to be a man.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com