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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