Modern adventurer traces early Arctic explorers' footsteps

Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Wandering in circles on the snow-crusted tundra somewhere between Prudhoe Bay and Kaktovik in the spring of 1992, then 64-year-old Dick Griffith gave into the anguish Arctic explorers have known since the days of Peary and Shackleton.

One of his busted wooden skis was mended with duct tape. He just discovered that his snow saw had rubbed against his fuel can causing him to lose most of his cookstove gas.

Temperatures hovered around 15-below.

''Some days I hate the Arctic, and this is one of them,'' the Anchorage adventurer wrote in his journal that night.

''I am hopelessly lost, surrounded by miles and miles of flat tundra with only an occasional sprig of grass poking through the snow . . . I can't see the miles and miles of flat tundra because of the blowing snow, but I know it's out there. It's a scary feeling.''

For Griffith, this was a pretty good day.

Bad days left scars.

He frostbit his rear end so severely on one trip that part of it had to be amputated. He was left with the nickname ''Blackass Griffith'' for the color of the frozen flesh on his buttocks.

He has wrestled with rabid foxes, outsmarted polar bears but refused to carry a gun. He fought off hunger and cold and survived his own foibles.

Once he nearly killed himself with carbon monoxide poisoning when his cookstove spewed fumes into his iced-over tent. Another time the wind grabbed his tent and sailed it over Norton Sound. While he gave chase, another gust took his sleeping bag.

Always, it seemed, he forgot a key piece of gear -- or lost gear to gale-force winds or distracted mind.

Nearly every spring for two decades, Griffith wandered the Alaska and Canada Arctic on a pair of old wooden skis pulling a 150-pound sled. The years have added up. He has probably covered more of the Arctic on foot than any man this century.

Others had gone before him by dog sled, by ship and by snowmachine. But no one as far by skis.

Fueled by dried fish strips, butter, macaroni and cheese, tea and rum, Griffith logged 5,000 miles. He crisscrossed the Alaska Interior, traveled the Alaska coast from Unalakleet all the way into Canada. There, he roughly followed the same path Roald Amundsen did in 1906 when Amundsen became the first explorer to transit the Northwest Passage. Griffith ended his eastward journey in Hudson Bay.

He's gone the miles without what he dismissively calls a ''come-and-get-me radio,'' but not without his two troll dolls because the Arctic made him superstitious. He still talks about the ''Little People'' a Native elder told him about who lay in wait to wreak havoc with travelers.

A couple of times he had the smarts to turn back.

He's hard-pressed to explain why he's done it.

''I can't come up with a definitive answer,'' he said. Maybe it was because he wanted to do something no one else had done.

His journal includes written sketches of the bleak landscape and pondering on why he keeps returning to the unbearable cold, the numbing winds and torture.

''I still can't explain why, but I can explain how,'' he jokes.

''The first few years I made lengthy Arctic trips to satisfy my ego,'' he wrote in 1997.

''The next few trips were made because I knew I could do better. Now I make Arctic trips because it's that time of year.''

He never had one of those big sponsors who provide Arctic explorers with new gear and splashy colored outfits. ''The only sponsor I have is the Salvation Army, a place I can get clothes cheap,'' Griffith writes in his journal. He said the second-hand store is also a good place to pick up disposable, wooden Bonna skis for $15.

While his memorable moments are epic, they are outnumbered by days where he plodded along in a white landscape, pushing against wind and time, surrounded by the Arctic's beauty, sometimes hearing owls during mating season, or the cracking and popping of the pressure ridges of Arctic Ocean ice.

His wanderings occasionally intersected villages and isolated homesteads, where he met people who make the Arctic their home. They included Natives with familial links to famous Arctic explorer Vihjalmur Stefansson, who Griffith had read about as a kid growing up during the Depression on a desolate Wyoming ranch.

While Stefansson, Peary and Amundsen's arctic exploits are well documented, not many have heard Griffith's tales. He doesn't talk much. But after much coaxing and cajoling he agreed to share his journal.

''I would put him right up there amongst the top 10 adventurers in Alaska, and I would say that even if he wasn't 73,'' said Roman Dial, an Anchorage adventurer who has done a number of extreme backcountry trips, including skiing across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and mountain biking across the Harding Ice Field.

''The fact that he has done all these winter trips in the Arctic by himself is really amazing. He's so good he makes mistakes and gets away with it,'' Dial said.

Griffith has been one of the most influential adventurers in Alaska in the last two decades, Dial said. He pioneered the idea of using small, one-man pack rafts to traverse wild rivers in the backcountry. ''He was doing that 20 years ago, now college kids do it and they have no idea who Dick Griffith is,'' Dial said.

Griffith's family always worries when he sets out on one of his journeys, ''but you can only say so much,'' said his son, Barney. ''It doesn't affect his decision.''

''We're use to it,'' said his daughter, Kimmer. ''Basically I hope he doesn't come home some day. Better he dies out there like that than being at home.''

But Griffith is done now.

He is not going back to the Arctic this spring. His arctic wanderings are over.

''It costs too much,'' he said. ''I have to spend $3,000 to get up to Hudson Bay. Plus, if I keep it up, I'm not coming back.''

That doesn't mean Griffith, who turns 74 in June, is ready to join his peers at golf or a Florida retirement home.

He is a veteran of several Alaska Wilderness Classics, a rugged backcountry foot race.

He has climbed Mount McKinley and trekked in the Himalayas with Kimmer and Barney.

He also has done a number of extraordinary trips on the Southwest's rivers, including a daring run down the Grand Canyon in a one-man raft when he was 64. As a volunteer, he takes inmates out to the Eagle River Nature River Center once a week to chop firewood for the public-use cabins.

''Yeah, I got to do something next winter,'' Griffith said earlier this month just before leaving to work as a guide on a raft trip on the Colorado River.


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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