What next?

Courtesy Steve Burge

Courtesy Steve Burge

Steve Burge, a reader from the United Kingdom, met Dick only one time back in 1991, but the encounter left an indelible impression. Steve recently wrote this essay about Dick’s influence on his life when he was 25 years old, and now again, at the age of 50. 

Zen slap. That’s what Alison called them. Unexpected life changing moments which challenge our status quo. Irresistible enough to knock us onto a different path and irreversible enough to make it stick.

My 50th birthday was hardly unexpected – I’d known it was coming for a while. What I hadn’t anticipated was different threads, themes, experiences and memories from the previous 50 years – different paths – to converge, unprompted and unaided, into a clear and unambiguous way ahead. I’d thought 50 was supposed be about the end of the road, not new beginnings. But this doesn’t feel like radical new beginnings. Less mid-life (mid-wife…) crisis and radical, out of character departure into la-la land, rather the comforting realisation that everything to date has been preparation – an apprenticeship – for the road ahead. This road. The one I am already on.

I wonder if this could be Dick Griffith’s influence, again. I only met this quiet, gentle man for a few days, but the experience affected me greatly and has echoed through the years. I had gone to Alaska in 1991 to help Operation Raleigh, a UK based youth development charity, establish a programme of sea kayak based, base-line survey projects to inform management plans for 12 new State Marine Parks in Prince William Sound. Dick, a seasoned Alaskan wilderness traveler, was helping Raleigh plan the mountain trekking projects. He asked, humbly, whether he might join us for a few days at the start of our initial kayaking trip. He had always wanted to paddle across ‘the Sound’. Dick was 64. I was just 25, and despite being brought up in a very outdoors family and having a UK sea kayaking leadership qualification, still had much to learn.

As we stood on the beach in Whittier, amongst a mountain of shiny, new, modern kayaks and camping equipment, with a ton of tinned food (military surplus rations – but only half what we should have had – but that’s another story), Dick started to assemble an aged Klepper folding kayak. I was starting to get nervous. To those of us, especially in the UK, bought up on a diet of ‘high performance’ composite kayaks the canvas and birch ply Klepper is an anachronism. A relic from the early days of modern kayaking as a leisure activity. We think of them as slow antiques, paddled by technology denyers, hippies and others who ‘don’t get it’. I was about to have my eyes opened.

Dick’s boat was ready, packed and afloat before we’d even started to pack ours. He stood beside it dressed in second hand thermal underwear, his modesty covered by a long pair of old shorts, and wearing the ubiquitous brown rubber boots (Alaskan sandals) so beloved by local commercial fishermen, and holding a paddle with ‘Stolen from Dick Griffith’ marker-penned across each blade. Now I was worried. It was scary enough heading into a wilderness I didn’t know for 3 weeks with the weight of responsibility of leading two kayaking groups, totalling 24 people who had never kayaked before, weighing heavily on my shoulders. All I needed right now was an old wilderness lunatic in superman fancy-dress. I thought Dick was going to be a liability; he was surely going to slow us down (we were on a schedule; we were to be in Valdez in 3 weeks with 4 of the parks surveyed). He might freeze to death, maybe need evacuating. Perhaps I ought to discretely check his gear:

“What rain gear do you have Dick? Just the plastic sou’wester over trousers, jacket and hat? Right”.

“Any other warm clothing? Just the one (old) jumper?”.

“Tent? Just the tarp?”.

“Food? It’s all in the biscuit tin? But there’s just a little rice, oats, some small tins of meats/fish/sauce and coffee in here …”

I wasn’t feeling reassured.

As we paddled achingly slowly to our first beach Dick paddled a discrete distance away, off to our left and closer to shore. He looked in control, and patient. We arrived at Entry Cove 6 hours later than I’d planned, at low instead of high tide, so faced repeated stumbling trips ferrying our mountain of gear and heavy, fragile craft over slippery, ankle turning, rocks. As I got to the narrow shingle shelf at the top of the beach, next to the snow, for the second time, I noticed Dick sitting there, all set for the night and starting to cook. On my fourth trip a comfortable and refreshed Dick asked whether I would mind if he went for a walk up the hill behind the beach. I was starting to get the picture. Yes, he was going to slow us down, but not in the negative way I had imagined.

It was past midnight as we were finally getting ourselves established; struggling for tent space on the snow, back in the trees, struggling to cook, struggling to find water. Wilderness novices. But the quality of the light was unlike any I had experienced, like a perpetual pre-dawn, and the wilderness was silent; as if pausing before the urgency of a sub-Arctic summer. Then the soft, haunting sound of a flute filled the bay. It was Dick, up on the hill, alone with his thoughts and his music. At home. He wasn’t contaminating the wilderness with noise, but delicately complementing it – talking to it – with it. Visceral harmony, felt in the bones. Then I got it. That perfect moment changed my life. I well-up whenever that memory surfaces, all senses tingling, and everything in the world goes calm again. Reset.

He’s funny too. Sitting around the fire I learned that Dick had walked extensively, and alone, often for months at a time, throughout Alaska. Asking whether he’d ever been lost he replied “No. I’ve been confused sometimes for a couple of weeks. But never lost”. In answer to the obvious follow up question about maps he dead panned “Can’t be lost without a map”. I say dead panned, but he was serious. These were just simple facts, honestly given.

A day or two later, I assume content that I wasn’t going to kill my charges, our real wilderness superman quietly paddled on to join the other kayaking group, and then on alone to Valdez. I never met him again.

But he has still been able to change my life again. Just a few years ago a book was written about his life thus far; ‘Canyons and Ice, the Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith’. As with the truest of hero’s he agreed to this reluctantly, not thinking he has done anything to deserve recognition. But he’s very wrong. Even if what he’s achieved didn’t warrant recording (which it does), the manner in which he’s conducted his life and the positive influence he’s had upon others, and their passing on of this influence – like ripples on a pond – should be acknowledged and committed to our collective memory.

You should really read this book for yourself, but the points I refer to here are those which are most important to me. The first is that a couple of weeks before that Alaska kayaking trip in 1991 Dick, a pioneer of white water rafting in the committing desert canyons of the south west USA before moving to Alaska, had just successfully completed a solo, illegal bandit run of the Grand Canyon, in a tiny ex-service one-man life raft – a precursor to the Packraft, which he also pioneered. He never mentioned this astounding feat around that campfire! Remember, he was 64!

The second is that Dick is always looking forward. When he spends summers walking, alone, in the high Arctic he burns the finished pages of the books he takes for company. So there’s no going back….done that, move on. Perhaps this is the secret to his longevity. He was still running the Alaska Wilderness Classic (which he founded), when he was 81. This is one of the toughest ultra-marathon running races in the world, which extreme runners aspire to complete. And only a few of them do complete it. Dick completed it 17 times.

Dick was also a civil engineer, as I am. He designed and constructed air fields for the CAA throughout Alaska, while raising family and until his retirement. I smiled warmly when I read this. It was perfect. Civil engineers quietly save and improve people’s lives, without fanfare or in search of  recognition. His work will still be having a positive impact on Alaskan people for generations to come. Some will be even be alive because of his work, but they will ever know. It’s what we do. Then he started the big walks.

So Dick, thank you for showing me your way when I was 25, and again now I’m double that. The first time I learned to travel lightly, softly, quietly at a pace the world allows and to be calm and comfortable in the wilderness. I learned that less is more, to follow my heart and not the herd. Now, later in life I have also learned from you to build upon yesterday’s experiences, but to keep looking forward to the next, while fully living each moment. There are still so many interesting people to meet and experiences needing done.

So, what’s next …

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Memories of Griffith as a boy


Dick has always been an adventure seeker and explorer. As a young boy (7-10 yrs.) he was a frequent visitor to my parent’s mountain ranch where he wandered around with our dog “Turk” looking for bear. As my dad told it, he never got lost and always returned at supper time for my mother’s extra good cooking. However, he has been known to get lost in a shopping mall.
On one occasion, when he was 7, he accompanied my father to our “upper place” (5 miles away) to harvest the hay crop. They stayed in a primitive homesteader/hunter cabin fully equipped with wood stove, unwashed bedding and mice. When the mower broke down, my father had to ride home for repair parts. Dick chose to stay overnite in the cabin alone. This might be “child abuse’ these days.
After his family retured to CO from Wy, Dick was camping near the Poudre River and a rattle snake crawled in his tent with him. That Polar Bear in No. Canada was not the first creature to invade his sleeping space.
Thru the years, Dick,Isabelle and their family has been very kind to my family. We have experienced the “Friday Nite Fish Dinners” and he treated my parents (70+ years at the time) to a time-of-their-life fishing trip to the Fingering Lakes north of Dillingham,AK.
It is great that he has documented so many of his escapades in his Canyons and Ice book. It’s a great testimony to his abilty to survive most anything.  — Charlie (Hotshot) Weinrich Washington, IL

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“Skillfully documented, artfully told. . .” Canyons and Ice Reviewed in the Alaska Star


Read Frank Baker’s review here!


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Canyons and Ice featured in The Alaska Dispatch


Read Craig Medred’s article here!


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Read Reviews Here


Review by Tom Martin

It is with great pleasure that I see the life story of Dick Griffith has just been published. I stumbled upon Dick’s exploits with his stunning wife and life companion Isabelle Galo while researching my latest book on Grand Canyon river runners.
The first river runners to run Lava Falls in Grand Canyon were the team of George Flavell and Ramon Montez in 1896 as they piloted the wooden boat PANTHON through the cataract. It took another fifty five years before a rubber raft would attempt the run. That would be Dick Griffith, credited with the first run of Lava in a rubber boat in 1951. The photographer who documented his run was Isabelle.

A year later, Dick and Isabelle were pioneering routes through the Barranca del Cobre along the Urique River in northern Mexico, and by the close of the 1950’s, Dick and Isabelle had moved to Alaska, where Dick began his love affair with long walks over the Wilderness of the arctic.

While the book recounts one man’s love affair with Wilderness, it also chronicles a change to the land and people of remote landscapes. Indeed, the remote Grand Canyon and Urique Barranca Dick knew are gone, and the arctic badlands now team with snow machines and sport hunters. At one point in 1999, late in Dick’s wanderings, an old Eskimo woman followed Dick out of Cambridge Bay into the icy Wildlands. Dick wrote in his journal “…She wanted to go back to the land where life was not easy but a happy one and like myself she must have loved the memories of a simple basic life.”

While I would have liked to hear more about Dick’s travels in the Himalaya, one of “…three magic places in this world,” the book is filled with enough adventures to keep anyone occupied, and author Kaylene Johnson has done a superb job of recounting Dick and Isabelle’s travels.

Even though Dick may not be the first person to travel through part of Grand Canyon in a pack raft, that “first” possibly going to Frank Moltzen and Neal Newby in 1956, Dick’s willingness to attempt the Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek section of the river, sans permit in 1991 in a packraft at the age of sixty-three, demonstrates a willingness to test the boundaries of human endurance and our relationship to wild landscapes few others have attempted.

This January while the Grand Canyon History Symposium was underway at the South Rim of the Park, eight-four year old Dick Griffith was out making Grand Canon 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, and highly recommend this book.

— Tom Martin co-founded the Grand Canyon Hikers and Backpackers Association and River Runners for Wilderness. He presently serves as Secretary of the Grand Canyon Historical Society. He is the author of several books including the recently released Big Water, Little Boats: Moulty Fulmer and the First Grand Canyon Dory on the Last of the Wild Colorado.


Review by Roman Dial

Canyons and Ice is a non-fiction account of an unbelievable life, the life of Dick Griffith.

At 85, Dick Griffith has lived several lives, and this is the book that tells those stories.

Based on more than 500 pages of his notes and journals and well-illustrated with his photos spanning over sixty years, this is the definitive Dick Griffith book, the one  that we have all been waiting for. It’s a biography, not autobiography, so it is much closer to his personal style and demeanor: ego-free.

In his 20s Dick was a canyoneer in Mexico before that term was coined, and whitewater rafter, taking his wife down Glen, Grand, and Copper Canyons in the 1950s. In his thirties, the year Alaska was granted Statehood, he traversed half the Brooks Range, solo and living off the land. In his 40s he took his two kids and their friends all over the Chugach Mountains and completed his traverse of the Brooks Range. In his 50s he introduced packrafting to the rest of us during the original adventure race, the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic. In his 60s and 70s and on skis he followed the Arctic coast of Alaska and the Northwest Passage to Hudson Bay, solo; at 64 he paddled the Grand Canyon in an open Sherpa Packraft (pre-Alpacka with smaller tubes and no spraydeck) also solo.

But there is much more to Dick than these wilderness adventures and fortunately for the rest of us, this book captures much of the human and family side of this great man.

The book is not a chronology of his un-sung achievements. No, it’s a well-crafted narrative that intertwines these achievements with quotes and observations of Dick, his family, and his friends.

Having been fortunate enough to know Dick and read some of his journals, I feared that something of the unique quality of his voice, the “aw-shucks” wit and humor would be lost. But his insightful one-liners are there and all the stories are well-told and true.

The only critique is that the book should have been published in hardback.

This book deserves a lasting place on our bookshelves.

— Roman Dial is a professor at Alaska Pacific University, teaching courses in ecology, outdoor skills, and math. He has climbed, hiked, and skied across the major mountain ranges of Alaska. Roman’s 800-mile mountain bike traverse of the Alaska Range was featured in the May 1997 issue of National Geographic magazine, his “canopy trek” through Australia in the March 2003 issue, and his expedition to find Borneo’s tallest tropical tree in the July 2006 issue. He is the author of Packrafing!


Review by Craig Medred

Dick Griffith has lived the sort of big, wild life that most cardboard-cutout adventurers of today only dream of living. He has engaged the wilderness in his own way on his own terms without ever once pandering to sponsors. He has undertaken adventures hard to believe, and survived every one of them. The result is a life so awe inspiring you may not believe this book true. But every damn word is as real as the north-country dangers that have killed lesser men.

– Craig Medred, is reporter for Alaska Dispatch, long-time outdoor columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and author of Graveyard of Dreams.” 


Review by Jon Krakauer

In Canyons and Ice, Kaylene Johnson recounts the adventures of Dick Griffith, who has undertaken a series of remarkable wilderness journeys across Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and the American West over the past six decades. On at least one of these trips he barely survived. Stoical, utterly self-reliant, and attracted by challenges of immense scale, Griffith brings to mind heroic figures of an earlier, less craven era — stalwart individuals like Shackleton, Amundsen, Nansen, and Stefansson who explored some of the least hospitable places on earth without benefit of GPS, Gore-Tex, or the possibility of rescue. Unlike most of his celebrated antecedents, however, Griffith’s motives for seeking a life of risk and hardship had nothing to do with a desire for wealth or prestige.  As this gripping and inspiring book explains, Griffith is simply “afflicted” with an irresistible inclination to attempt what others say can’t be done. When asked what possesses a man to repeatedly strike out alone across hundreds of miles of rugged, lonely country, he replies, “Every so often, it’s just time to walk.”

– Jon Krakauer, Author of Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Where Men Win Glory


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Mark Your Calendars


December 7      3-5 p.m. at Fireside Books. Join Dick and Kaylene in celebrating a Colony Christmas in Palmer. Pick up a signed copy of Canyons and Ice for the adventurer on your list.

December 8 1-3 p.m. at G Street Fox, 420 G Street  Anchorage. We had so much fun the first time, we’re going back to sign books at this unique store in Anchorage. Please join us!

December 15 2-4 p.m. at REI on Northern Lights in Anchorage. LAST SIGNING BEFORE CHRISTMAS! Pick up your outdoor gear and a book for the adventurer on your list.




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