Skip to main Content
Outdoors/Adventure

This 90-year-old ‘adventurer’s adventurer’ has an almost unreal resume of rambling

  • Author: Matt Tunseth, Chugiak-Eagle River Star
  • Updated: April 6
  • Published April 5

Dick Griffith rows a raft through the Grand Canyon at age 89, April 2017. (Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan)

Dick Griffith is a doer, not a talker.

"I don't know anything," said Griffith, a longtime Eagle River Nature Center benefactor and a living legend among Alaska's outdooring set.

The gruff Griffith knows a hell of a lot more than he lets on. The 90-year-old "adventurer's adventurer" has compiled an almost unreal resume of rambling during his nine decades, including legendary pioneering trips down the Grand Canyon, death-defying treks across the Arctic and a laundry list of exploits in the Alaska backcountry.

Griffith's adventures were first chronicled in his copious diaries, then later in the book "Canyons and Ice" by former Eagle River resident Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan.

Last year, a documentary film crew joined Griffith on a rafting trip down the Colorado River, which Griffith first started exploring in makeshift rafts in the 1940s. Johnson-Sullivan — who now lives in Palmer — is co-producing the documentary, which she's trying to fund through a Kickstarter effort and a partnership with Alaska Public Media. As of Tuesday night, the campaign had raised more than $20,000 toward its $25,000 goal.

Dick Griffith enjoying a smoke. (Renee Johnson)

But there's a catch: The deadline is Thursday, April 5, at 8 p.m. Alaska time, and if the documentary doesn't reach its goal, the funding doesn't kick in.

"It's a lot of nail-biting to get to the finish line," Johnson-Sullivan said in a Tuesday afternoon interview.

The documentary has already been filmed, with footage from the trip down the Grand Canyon supplemented with photos from Griffith's travels. According to the project description, all that's left to complete the film is post-production work.

"We need to cover all the standard costs for a TV show: editing, color-correction and music, plus boring technical and legal stuff like closed captioning and errors and omissions insurance."

Johnson-Sullivan said the trip down the Grand Canyon was filmed in ultra-high resolution by director/producer Andy Trimlett and director of photography Jesse Keller. Johnson-Sullivan said getting the notoriously publicity-averse Griffith to agree to the documentary might have been the hardest part of the effort.

"Dick is a reluctant star," she said. "He's not about notoriety and fanfare."

The only way she could get Griffith onboard, she said, was to assure him the documentary would be a serious production.

"The only way we convinced him this film should be made is that it would be a documentary and it would have nothing to do with reality TV," she said.

Griffith has seen much of the footage and said he was impressed with how the film turned out.

"They got some good stuff," he said.

The crew filmed in Alaska, flying over glaciers and filming some of the wild country Griffith once walked. The highlight of the documentary is an attempt by Griffith to become the oldest person to go through the Colorado River's Lava Falls.

"That's not often done by one so old," said Griffith, who is believed to have been the first person to go through the rapids on an inflatable boat in the 1950s. Returning to the Grand Canyon is a yearly rite for Griffith, who said he didn't think rafting the rapids at his advanced age was particularly noteworthy.

"To me it's nothing," he said. Griffith is modest to a fault, but others who know of his outdoor prowess are much more forthcoming with their praise.

Alaska adventurer Roman Dial wrote the book on packrafting, a pursuit Griffith is widely credited with pioneering.

"He arguably and singlehandedly started the on-going packrafting revolution," Dial wrote in a post on his blog detailing Griffith's contributions to the Alaska — and international — outdoors scene.

Among Griffith's accomplishments are 17 finishes in the Alaska Wilderness Classic, a grueling, badass-only adventure race he last completed when he was 81 years old. He's traversed the length of the Northwest Passage and was known for hiking the length of the Crow Pass Trail — both ways — in one day. Griffith has long been a supporter of the Eagle River Nature Center, and earlier this year he sponsored a matching grant program, promising to match every dollar raised for the center in the Eagle River Valley with one of his own.

Dial — author of "Packrafting! An Introduction and How-to Guide" — credits Griffith with helping start a worldwide shift in outdoor recreation away from motorized transport and toward foot-powered adventures.

"Before that people had walked across Alaska, but they did it for money, or fame, or glory," Dial wrote. "Dick did it because, as he once said, 'Sometimes a man just has to walk.' "

Johnson-Sullivan said the final fundraising push has been frenetic.

"Basically we're calling everybody we know, putting things out on Facebook," she said. If all goes according to plan, she said the documentary will make its debut this fall.

Dial thinks more people need to know Griffith's tale.

"Dick's story is an important one," he wrote. "… An influential one, one that needs to be told and one that we all want to hear."

Email Alaska Star editor Matt Tunseth at mtunseth@adn.com

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments