This Q&A with Dick Griffith was originally published in Alaska magazine and is rerun here with permission.
Dick Griffith has trekked 10,000 miles of Alaska and the Canadian Arctic. He was the first to go through the Grand Canyon’s infamous Lava Falls on an inflatable raft. He was the first to explore the length of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. He is considered the grandfather of packrafting and finished the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic 17 times. Griffith holds the record for the oldest person to complete the race at 81. At 89 years old, he went for one final run through the Grand Canyon, all of it captured on film. Throughout the trip, he told his story: starvation, bears, rabid foxes, blinding storms—the list of what has tried to kill him is long. Canyons & Ice: The Last Run of Dick Griffith, recounts the greatest stories of this legend’s nine decades of pushing life to the limits. ~ as told to and edited by Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan
What possesses someone to repeatedly strike out alone across hundreds of miles of wilderness?
Every so often it’s just time to walk. You have all this energy; you have to do something with it. I retired on Friday and started a trip on Monday. I was 62. I didn’t have anything else to do.
Some people take up golf in their retirement. Why wilderness travel?
It all started with books when I was growing up in Wyoming, books like Dellenbaugh’s A Canyon Voyage. You read about places and want to go there. I traveled all over the Chugach Mountains before retirement and took some longer trips, like Kaktovik to Anaktuvuk Pass in 1959. But I was mostly a weekend warrior. As an engineer for the FAA, I helped build runways in villages around the state. I looked out the window of the airplane and thought, “I’ve got to go there someday.” The reason I could stay out so long on my trips was that I had a working wife.
You’ve had a book written and a public television documentary made about your life. Why have you been reluctant about the notoriety?
It goes against the grain. Not everyone wants to get famous. I don’t know why anyone would, to be honest with you. I went on these trips because I enjoyed the challenge and then that was it. Once it’s over, you go find a new one. We were rafting [on the Colorado River] and a film crew showed up at Bright Angel trail. It was a good place to get me cornered—I couldn’t send them back up the trail. They were fun guys. They made the film possible. I have a lot of friends who aren’t even interested in this stuff. We talk politics.
What has changed about wilderness travel since you started more than 70 years ago?
This world has gotten so small. I’ve lost the rivers to dams. We were the only ones on the Colorado River then, and now tens of thousands of people do it every year. Same with the Barranca del Cobre in Mexico. The [indigenous] culture is gone, and drug trafficking has made it too dangerous to return. Back in the ‘50s, the big interest in Alaska was hunting and fishing. Now look at the Brooks Range—it’s getting crowded.
What advice would you give about living life to its fullest?
To older people, I’d say just keep moving. When you’re in your sixties, you still have your strength. Even into your seventies. Walking—anyone can do it. You don’t need equipment or training. You can walk your way to a long life. To younger people, there’s nothing you can say to them.