Thirty-six years ago this summer, Anchorage’s Dick Griffith blew up an inflatable boat on the east bank of the Kenai Peninsula’s Skilak River and set in motion a chain of events that would forever alter outdoor travel in wild Alaska.
All Griffith wanted to do at the time was get from one bank to the other. And the word “packraft” had yet to enter the Alaska vernacular, although decades had passed since Griffith discovered the usefulness of the “one-man pneumatic life raft” that first appeared on the scene as survival gear for pilots shot down at sea during World War II.
Griffith and his late wife, Isabelle, put those early “survival rafts” into use when exploring the Urique River of Mexico’s Copper Canyon in the 1950s. A lover of wild places, Griffith brought this knowledge north when he ran away to Alaska in the late 1950s, eventually to settle in a home high above the state’s largest city.
He moved the family north in the early 1960s and spent a 30-year career as a civil engineer helping the Federal Aviation Administration build airports all over the 49th state when he wasn’t adventuring.
The adventures he managed to squeeze into his free time would come to define “The Big Wild Life” that Visit Anchorage has since used to promote the modern, urban outpost squeezed between Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountains still dominated by grizzly bears and wolves.
Griffith’s life became the subject of the 2012 book “Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith” and his last raft run down the Grand Canyon at age 89 is now the subject of the documentary “Canyons & Ice: The Last Run of Dick Griffith,” which is struggling to raise the last funds necessary to make its appearance on the PBS television network.
But now this story has strayed from what it was meant to be, the tale of the man who set in a motion the chain of events that changed “packrafting” into a “sport.”
Here it is hard to avoid a giggle at the hype that has come to surround the little boats Griffith used as practical tools: “Packrafting 101 – Our intrepid writer takes on the new sport that combines backpacking and rafting into one balls-out pursuit,” Men’s Fitness magazine headlined in 2016.
A pragmatic, down-to-the-earth guy sometimes described as “gruff,” – a word which would not be considered pejorative in Alaska (at least not yet) – Griffith has never bought into the outdoor-adventure hype.
Trained as an engineer, he thinks like an engineer, but engineering was never really more than his job.
Backcountry adventurer was Griffith’s real passion, and this is what brought him to the banks of the Skilak in 1982 carrying an outsized backpack inside which was stuffed a Sherpa packraft, a boat with its own interesting history.
The Sherpa was a knock off of those early military survival boats. Washington-state brothers Bill and Gene Prater started making Sherpas to pack into mountain lakes. The Prater’s were a pair of inventors who’d revolutionized snowshoe design in the 1970s.
“Gene, who had worked for Boeing, experimented with the first use of modern materials for snowshoes,” writes Claire Walter at Snowshoe Magazine. “He and Bill eventually settled on a small oval frame of an aluminum alloy. Instead of the traditional webbing, the decking was a neoprene sheet laced onto the metal frame. The Praters formed Sherpa Design and named it after Washington State’s Sherpa Climbing Club, whose members were happy to lend the club’s name to the new-fangled snowshoes.”
The rest of that story is now history. The snowshoe industry is today dominated by metal-frame snowshoes with decks of various synthetic materials. As technological pioneers in outdoor gear, the Prater’s experimented with construction of lightweight nylon rafts for summer adventures on the lakes they snowshoed across in the winter as well.
But the rafts were not the success of the snowshoes and pretty quickly faded from the scene.
When Gene died in the 1993 at the age of 64, the Seattle Times wrote a story about the death of “Mr. Snowhoe…one of the nation’s foremost promoters of snowshoeing.” The story never mentioned his dabbling in boats.
When brother Bill died 17 years later, he warranted only a brief obituary in his hometown newspaper, the Ellensberg (Wash.) Daily Record. It reported his involvement with the “Sherpa Snowshoe which enabled Everest climbers as well as the casual hiker to fully enjoy backcountry snow travel,” but didn’t even hint at his tie to the packrafting phenomenon that exploding onto the outdoor scene in the 1990s.
Griffith had by then made a bandit run of the Grand Canyon in a Sherpa packraft in 1991, and Alaska’s Sheri Tingey – with advice from son, Thor, and a small mob of other Alaska wilderness adventurers including Griffith and Roman Dial – had helped transform the packraft into a serious adventure boat.
After Tingey came up with a solid design for a sprayskirt for her Alpacka Rafts in the 2000s after some hilarious failures, all hell broke loose.
“By 2006, Class V kayakers were switching to Alpackas and running steep creeks and even hucking off of twenty-five foot waterfalls,” as noted in the history at Packraft.org. “The packraft’s time had come.”
But that’s getting ahead of a story through which Griffith, a consummate paddler and oarsman, weaves his way from the time of those survival rafts to the Sherpas to the Alpackas and the modern-day and whole host of modern paddlers today doing packraft trips that would have seemed impossible when Griffith first arrived at the banks of the Skilak with a boat not recommended for moving water.
Plenty of cheap knock-offs of the Sherpa that would hit the market after the Sherpa’s demise would carry similar warnings. Those were warranted, too. Before Tingey brought high-quality materials back to packrafts, a lot of bad, vinyl copies of Sherpas were destroyed in Alaska rivers. The tattered remains of some might still be wrapped around submerged boulders in some rivers.
The coated-nylon Sherpa was a better craft, and standing on the banks of the Skilak in ’82, Dial and traveling buddy Dave Manzer, were about to learn the virtue. At the time, they might well have traded half the food in their back packs for an even notoriously fragile, early era Sevylor trail boat.
Dial would go on to win four of those races and Manzer two. Manzer would also come close to death in a packraft accident and a later packraft accident would claim the life of 44-year-old Rob Kehrer, a veteran of 10 classics.
The danger of cold water in Alaska cannot be overstated. Keher fell victim as the Classic evolved from a foot-race to more of a boat race. The transition was driven by the packraft, a piece of gear essentially unknown in 1982.
A 150-mile trek across the wilds of the Kenai Peninsula from the tiny, end-of-the-road community of Hope on Turnagain Arm to the much larger, end-of-the-road community of Homer on Kachemak Bay, the Hope-to-Homer was the mother of all adventure racing in Alaska.
It was fully intended to be a foot race, but Griffith had other plans.
The race opened with about 50 miles of hiking on the Resurrection and Russian lakes trails of the Chugach National Forest before turning west into the trailless, bear-filled and aptly named “Confusion Hills.” Once through the hills, competitors broke out on the banks of the gray, gritty, cold Skilak, draining the Skilak Glacier about a dozen miles upstream from Skilak Lake.
By the river, everyone was deep enough into the Alaska wilderness and far enough from rescue to make people think twice about doing anything too foolish for it might end in death. And Dial and Manzer, though still young, were already well experienced in Alaska wilderness travel and the dangers of cold water.
They had a plan for dealing with the Skilak River.
They’d camp on its bank, wait for the water level to drop during the cold of night as is the norm with glacially feds river, and then ford or if necessary swim the river at its lowest level in the morning. That was pretty much the traditional way of dealing with Alaska glacial rivers.
“I’d swam a river or two in Alaska,” Dial says in the Griffith documentary, but Dial wasn’t foolish enough to risk the Skilak at midday. So he and Manzer, the first of the Hope-to-Homer racers to find their way through the Confusions to the Skilak, sat down to wait. All these years later, Dial still remembers vividly what happened next.
“And then the other competitors started showing up and, um, Dick was one of them,” Dial says in the documentary. “And so he caught us. We’d been way out ahead, and he, um, had this big heavy pack, and he puts it down and starts pulling his camping gear out. And he pulls out like this hat, this purple hat, like with yellow horns or something, or red horns. I can’t remember the color. And he puts it on.”
Grifith, then 65, was to Dial and Manzer, some silly looking old man in a silly purple hat.
“And then he pulls out this raft, and Manzer and I, we look at each other, and we’re like, ‘he’s, he’s going to paddle across the river, I’d say.’ And Manzer looks at me,” Dial remember, “and he says,’Yeah, he’s going to float down the Fox River, too.’
“And (Griffith) looks at us and he says, ‘You young guys, you might be fast, but you eat too much and you don’t know nothin’.”
That quote would come to define Griffith for a generation of younger Alaskans. Griffith himself would just keep going and going and going, chasing around the wilderness and still leaving behind men and women half his age.
He did his last Classic at age 81. Five years later, he rode the Resurrection Trail on horseback to retrace part of the route of that first classic. Dial, meanwhile, started fooling around with rafts, even building a few copies of the Sherpa of himself.
Tingey got into the game in a big way, and packrafting became a modern phenomenon. These days if you don’t own a packraft, you’re just not much of an Alaska adventurer. Thank Griffith for underlining that boat’s virtues.
Thirty years earlier, he had discovered Army surplus “survival rafts” – the boats Army Air Force pilots were provided as gear during World War II in case they happened to crash at sea –