AS TOLD TO TYLER WILLIAMS
Among scholars of the wilderness voyage, Dick Griffith is best known for his epic foot and ski journeys across North America’s Arctic. Now 87, Griffith is the only human to ski the Northwest Passage, and the first white man to cross Alaska’s Brooks Range east to west. That traverse involved river travel, something that had been a mainstay of Griffith’s wilderness repertoire ever since his pioneering runs of Southwestern rivers in the 1950s. To river-runners, he is revered as the father of packrafting. The seminal moment of that sport’s history came in 1982 during the inaugural Alaska Wilderness Classic backcountry race. As other racers waited around a smoky campfire for the Skilak River to drop so they could ford it, Griffith arrived wearing a Viking-horned hat. He pulled a six-pound vinyl raft from his pack, quipped a jocular taunt to his younger competitors, and paddled across the swollen river, cutting a wake that generations would follow.
I was 12 years old when I read about Buzz Holmstrom’s solo trip down the Colorado River. That inspired me to build my own boat.
The San Juan was my first river trip. The water was high, and I had no idea how to row, but I met Harry Aleson as I passed Bluff, Utah. He taught me some things. I hired on with Aleson as a boatman in 1949. On one of those trips, I met Isabelle. She helped fund my dream of re-tracing Holmstrom’s route down the Green and Colorado.
Isabelle, Jim Gifford, and I launched from Green River, Wyoming, in one wooden boat and one raft. We used Frederick Dellenbaugh’s 1872 journals as our guidebook. The wooden boat was smashed to pieces at Disaster Falls in Lodore Canyon. Jim had to leave the trip in Green River, Utah, and I wouldn’t let Isabelle continue with me. I thought Cataract Canyon was too dangerous for a girl.
I met Charles Lindbergh’s son, Jon, at Dark Canyon Rapids—a significant rapid before Glen Canyon Dam. He had hiked in with a group of Explorer Scouts. He was the only one who wanted to run the rapids with me, so I took him through. The next day, I saw a motorboat on the river, and Isabelle was in it. We floated through Glen Canyon to Lees Ferry, and got married the next summer.
We launched on the Green in Wyoming again in 1951, and continued all the way through the Grand Canyon. Dam survey crews in Marble Gorge gave us a ride in their cable car to the top of the Redwall Limestone, and fed us dinner. At Lava Falls, it was just a matter of squeezing between two rocks on the left. I guess that was the first inflatable boat to run the rapid. It was a Navy surplus model that I got for $125.
I took that boat to Copper Canyon to lead an organized first descent of the Rio Urique. I thought we’d have a real river, but it was just a creek. We made 10 miles in eight days of portaging. Everyone went home, but Isabelle and I continued on foot. We built driftwood logs tied together with shoelaces to swim our gear across walled-in pools.
At a mining camp, we found a Tarahumara Indian who led us to a trail. It was a 200-miletrek to the nearest train station. We traveled back to Tucson, got our car, and drove to Fort Collins, Colorado, where I bought an Air Force survival raft at an Army surplus store. Then we drove straight back to Copper Canyon. With the packraft, I shuttled three native guides and Isabelle across pools, one at a time, and we finished our trip.
The next time I used a packraft was during my first long walk in the Arctic, a 450-mile trek from the Arctic Ocean to Anaktuvuk Pass in the Brooks Range. That boat was good for crossing rivers, but at 15 pounds it was too heavy, so I abandoned it.
I used a cheap Sevylor raft that only weighed six pounds during the first Alaska Wilderness Classic race. It took me three hours to foat a section that took the other guys 15 hours to hike. If I was more competitive I could’ve won, but I like to sleep. After that, people realized that if you want to get around in Alaska, you have to have a packraft.
In 1991, I went back to the Grand Canyon, 40 years after my first trip. Nobody had run the river with a packraft, so I figured I ought to do it. I couldn’t get a permit, so I painted my 5-pound boat camoufage brown and went anyway. I crawled under the raft when helicopters few over. I camped away from the river, but people still saw me on the water. I caught a cold virus and the park was after me, so I hiked out at Phantom Ranch and flew back to Anchorage.
A few weeks later, I hiked back in and did the rest of the Canyon to Diamond Creek. Things sure had changed since my first trip down there, but there was still lots of wild country to explore. There still is.
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