Thursday, November 22, 2018

Ten Years and Thirty

Last week I went to Revelate Designs' Ten year anniversary party. Revelate is to bikepacking what Alpacka is to packrafting: the tool-maker for the sport.

Anyway, thirty years ago this year (2018) Carl Tobin, Jon Underwood, and I did a trip (1988) I wrote up as "Live to Ride, Ride to Die, Mountain Bikes from Hell!"

That route, Nabesna to McCarthy has been repeated three times now, by Revelate's founder Eric Parsons and his protege Dylan Kentch, and by Mike Curiak, Doom Fishfinder, Bret Davis, and John Bailey as well as some Euros.

But how did that ride inspire Underwood, Tobin and me? Well, it sent us off to pedal, paddle and push 250 miles from Mentasta to Healy, Alaska the following summer.

I couldn't sell the story to a national magazine for four years, but eventually it came out in the February 1994 issue of Mountain Bike. You can see it mentioned down in the lower left next to other "Incredible Adventures!" like beginner night riding.

Here is that story in the form it was published. It also came out in the Anchorage Daily News' Sunday insert, We Alaskans, as a chapter in an adventure cycling book nobody ever bought, and as a bunch of Patagonia Catalog photos, ads, and garment hang-tags.

In many ways that trip was a proof of concept trip, one that allowed me to pitch riding the entire length of the Alaska Range from Canada to Lake Clark in 1996 as a story for National Geographic Magazine ("A Wild Ride", May 1997), a trip that in some small way may have helped get bikepacking and packrafting started.

For me, this trip below was the most amazing adventure of my life to that point, maybe ever, even if nobody but Carl and Jon could appreciate it at the time: 1989.

But maybe now, more can and it might even get somebody out to repeat what could be called, tongue-in-cheek, "The Sliprock Trail".

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Next Gen

Watching these makes me think I was born 30 years too soon.

He has many many more, too. Go check out his channel on You tube.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Golden Age Nostalgia

After reading Luc Mehl's guest blog at the Alpacka web site I indulged in some nostalgia from 2009-2010.

If you're reading this, then you really should go read Luc's post. I found it flattering and a bit of a vignette of what I, self-centeredly, consider the Golden Age of packrafting.

Golden in that it was a big leap forward. Golden in that Brad Meiklejohn urged us into Embick's  Class IV and V creeks. Golden in that real boaters Tim Johnson, Paul Schauer, and Thai Verzone led us down and plucked us out. Golden in that I started hitting whitewater centers beyond Alaska with the boat born in Alaska and now ready for the world: NZ, Grand Canyon, Australia's Franklin, Appalachians.

But the world was not ready. Haters were everywhere and even Alpacka wanted nothing to do with thigh straps.

"Why would a packrafter being going down a class 3/4 river like this, ever? Not only that, these guys are wearing drysuits because the water is cold - and I can't imagine a lightweight hiker wanting to bring one along on his trip. 
Seriously, I think you've missed the point of this video completely. It's about paddling in big groups that have sufficient resources to perform a rescue and using the skills that are taught in whitewater rescue classes properly. It's not about boat design.
I've kayaked big water for years and backpack/hike and the combination of packrafts and big water is a bozo no-no in my opinion. It seems like the packraft community is rediscovering everything the ww kayak community has known for years about the dangers of ww kayaking. Please stick to class 1 rivers and ponds for your own safety, and don't paddle in cold water without the proper thermal protection."

And a kayaker's response to thigh straps and packrafts in 2009. 

 ‘In a packraft, at least IMO, they seem like more than is necessary even at the upper end of whitewater. IMHO if you feel you need thigh straps you should probably think about improving your technique or further developing your skills. Weather it be reading the water better and seeing the clean lines and hitting them or simply spending more time in the raft, one needs to have skills. Given their design, there are just certain things that will be difficult no matter what you do. eg big holes on big water. These things are already about as idiot proof as it gets. Don't get me wrong, there are probably a hand full of people that could really push what is possible in a packraft with thigh straps, but for most it will simply be a substitute for skill and ultimately not help them in the long run. In fact I'd be willing to bet that most packrafters would not be able to roll a raft even if they were glued into the thing. It is certainly more difficult than a kayak by a long shot. Not to mention much harder on one's shoulders as well.’
But maybe like bad brush and cold water, some of us just felt that these nasty-grams were challenges to overcome and now that they are overcome, I find myself sitting back, older, and trying to just get out of the way.

  1. My Packrafting! book is out of print.
  2. Falcon Guidebooks sells a new book about packrafting.
  3. Thor and Sarah Tingey have transformed Alpacka with a boat for every kind of water and even a mountain bike boat.
  4. There are maybe even a dozen other packraft manufacturers.
  5. My testosterone has drained away leaving me somewhat flacid when it comes to whitewater.
  6. But it doesn't matter because there are plenty of bad-asses out there, 
    • including former kayakers and
    • hard-core packrafters-first who now use kayaks to improve their packrafting.
It's been great to watch and even greater to be part of it.

My own history with whitewater in packrafts can be covered in six videos. The first couple of videos are sort of accidental. But starting at the end of  2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 I posted on You Tube the greatest hits I'd been involved with each year. 

2008 was the year of whitewater discovery. 
2009 was the year of whitewater exploration.
2010 was the year of thigh straps that made us feel like real boaters.
2011 was the year of extended sterns that felt like cheating.

(January 2000) Taking a Sherpa Packraft down a stream in Pumalin Park, Chile before I'd actually got my butt in an Alpacka.

(January 2008)  Hermit to Havasu with Gordy and Cody Roman in the Grand Canyon. Up to say 2008, Cody Roman and I going down Ship Creek's canyon repeatedly and sniffing out some other runs elsewhere, was about it for whitewater. Then I started paddling with Brad.

(2008)  was the year I finally found someone other than Cody Roman who wanted to do Ship Creek more than once. The music was Radiohead's National Anthem, a song and band Roman introduced to me and the song captured the hectic feel of the early days of whitewater in packrafts. But YouTube stripped the now it's the canned version of what they offer.

(2009) By the Fall of  2009 the packrafting revolution was getting started with Brad, Thai, Luc, Gordy, Tony, Becky, JT and others hitting it hard in Southcentral AK. It was when Tim Johnson and Paul Schauer and Thai Verzone, Class V kayakers all, joined us.

These guys, as Mike Curiak recently wrote, made me feel as though they were "participating in an entirely different sport -- one filled with grace and control and poise, where by comparison I feel like I just bludgeon and hack my way through while trying to survive."

This one doesn't play on phones, I guess because nobody's made enough money yet off the half-century old Beatles classic, Revolution (although it plays on computers in the US). It's worth watching on a 'puter, by the way, with the sound track.

(2010) Ah yes, the struggle with Alpacka over thigh straps. We were the Devil:  dangerous, reckless, a real pain in the butt-boats of Alpacka, but in the end we were right. Maybe, just maybe, our devilish ways got the "Witchcraft" started, a black boat you might catch a glimpse of in this next video somewhere, and that is the ancestral boat of Alpacka's Lips and Gnarwall boats. Or maybe it was really the handful of "Media Feliz" paddlers down in CO that motivated the development. Still, I like to think it was us, the 20 or 30 people in Alaska packraft-paddling Six Mile and Little Su and Ship Creek and Bird that pushed whitewater boat development at Alpacka. But again, probably just my narcissism playing tricks on my ego!

(2011) With the new long stern boats of 2011 it was almost a new sport. It was like in the 1980s when sticky rubber (particularly the Fires) hit rock or when foot fangs and plastic boots hit ice, or when leashless tools hit both rock and ice, whenever that happened. We had the new longer stern boats that erased bandersnatching as a concept and instead launched us out of sticky holes, leaning forward into the modern boats we've known for years. It also ended my year-end video making recaps, as then Luc Mehl and Mike Curiak were there to pick up my stringy end of the tapestry and weave it with finer artistry.

And there we have it. Six footnotes to "Show up and Blow up: Alaska"!

Friday, March 23, 2018

What color should glacier algae be?

This is an article that came out this month in an international journal on microbial ecology. My co-authors include Ganey who did the experiment with chalk dust and McKenzie Skiles of the University of Utah.

I am psyched about it because it was the "Editor's Choice" for their March issue and because it mixes a bunch of science that I like: mathematical modeling, simple experiments, and organisms that live on glaciers.

If I tweeted, I'd tweet this. It's extra neat because it's free to read and the Oxford University Press asked me to post on their blog about glacier algae. That post comes out on Sunday, March 25.

Strangely, perhaps, I have been more absorbed in the statistical analysis of scientific data than outdoor adventures of late, perhaps because.....

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Dick Griffith Film Kickstarter

A friend of mine who’s one of the best whitewater boaters I have ever paddled with said that the adventuring community and what we do is like a big, woven tapestry that we all contribute to with our own adventures.

Some contributors add exceptionally colorful, wide and long-lasting patterns. In
Alaska, Dick Griffith has woven a long, thick, and wide band of enriching color.

He’s done this by developing hallmark outdoor sports in Alaska like packrafting, adventure racing, and long-wilderness traverses. And by being a humble, wry-humored, welcoming old guy.

He arguably and singlehandedly started the on-going packrafting revolution.

And adventure racing? Some might claim its roots in New Zealand, but the reality is that America’s first ideas of multi-day multi-sport adventure races arrived the way the packraft and the fatbike did: from Alaska, drifting south like whispers and rumors and dreams of wild freedom.

The Wilderness Classic, Iditaski, and Iditasport -- that’s where American adventure racing--and fatbiking and packrafting--really began, and there at the beginning was Dick, who was, essentially, the only adult in the room at the time.

And while long wilderness treks have become a rite of passage among young people today, Dick’s 400 mile wilderness solo walk from Kaktovik to Anaktuvuk in 1959 marked an early shift from the hunting-fishing-tracked vehicle outdoorsmen of the 40s and 50s and 60s to the self-propelled adventurers of today.

For those of us who know Dick personally, he’s also been an essential component of our social community. Someone who watches out for us. Someone who gives back. Someone who builds trails. Without Dick’s attention and interest the Wilderness Classic would likely have died out decades ago. But over 35 years old it’s the longest running, true adventure race in the world.

By the time Dick came to Alaska he’d already pioneered the use of big inflatables on the Colorado River in the 1940s and mini-inflatables in Mexico’s Copper Canyon in the 1950s. Soon after arriving here he made an epic walk along, across, and through the Brooks Range.

I remember how he described that trip to me when I was in my early 20s, hoping to one day make my own Brooks Range Crossing. He said he started with a partner and three dogs. The partner went lame with bad feet after sixty miles and quit. Later, one of the dogs died. Dick ran low on food and ate the second dog. The third one, he said, got smart and ran off.

Dick did this in 1959, the year APU was founded, the year before I was born.

Before that people had walked across Alaska, but they did it for money, or fame, or glory. Dick did it because, as he once said, “Sometimes a man just has to walk.”

Sixty years later people are finally catching up to Dick. They walk from one end of the Brooks Range to the other, ski long distances, packraft the Grand Canyon.

Today there are a bunch of young Alaskans contributing to the tapestry that is Alaskan adventure. People like Luc Mehl, Bretwood Higman, Thai Verzone, Bjorn Olson. But we all just add on where Dick started, where Dick left his mark, where Dick pointed the way. We’re just dabbing on our own personal touches thinking we’re something new, we’re something special, we’re somehow remarkable.

Maybe we are. But we wouldn’t be here doing it without Dick doing it first.

I met Dick when he was my age now. He was 55. I was just a punk-ass kid, 21 years old. In the intervening years, Dick went on to do a string of adventures: dozens of Wilderness Classics, Iditakis, Iditasports, and back-to-back Crow Pass Crossings. Solo packrafting down the Grand Canyon. Skiing several thousand miles from Unalakleet to Hudson Bay.

At the age in life when most folks settle down to write memoirs, or garden roses, or baby-sit grandkids, or nurse our achy joints, or maybe just pour ourselves a few glasses of red wine and read a book, Dick got up and went, lived a second life beyond his early adventures, adventures that would fill a memoir, after raising a family and in between baby-sitting a granddaughter, mostly living on his retirement from a respectable career as an engineer, sharing books and wine and beer and salads with all of us "orphans".

I showed up at Hope in 1982 for that first Hope to Homer race with just a bivy sack to sleep in. Dick shared his tent with me there at the start.

I’ll never forget the next day. Dick’s adventure partner, Bruce Stafford, dumped Dick’s pack out on Hope’s main street looking for Dick’s “secret weapon”, then hiding a bottle of booze in his pack. Dick just stood back and chuckled and clucked at Bruce. 50 miles later Dick discovered the bottle in his pack and buried it along the Sterling Highway, recovering it on his way home to Anchorage.

Nor can I forget a week after that, limping along the beach of Kachemak Bay when a half-naked George Ripley, the race founder, ran up behind me and Dave Manzer--who’s sitting over there. George grabbed me and shook me by the shoulders saying, “You better get a move on, Dick Griffith’s just 20 minutes behind!”

That got me running, and like Dick, I never run anywhere I can walk.

There are a handful of people—long-time friends and family—who’ve profoundly influenced my life. Dick is one of them. I have been fortunate to have photogenic and willing partners over the years. Fortunate to have the opportunity to somehow justify our adventures with magazine articles and photos, TV shows, even a packrafting book. But I can honestly say that if I’d never met Dick that August evening in Hope over 35 years ago, that I wouldn’t be who I am today.

I’d venture to say that if it were not for Dick, modern Alaskan outdoor adventure would not be what it is today.

I’d venture to say that what young Alaskan adventurers do today, and dream to do tomorrow, well, we owe that to Dick, to what he did in his 50s, 60s, 70s, even his 80s, as well as what he did when he, too, was young.

This documentary will give viewers the opportunity to hear Dick’s wit and wisdom.

It will show him moving and walking in ways a book just cannot.

Dick’s story is an important one, an influential one, one that needs to be told and one that we all want to hear.

Please help support the effort to finish this film.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Firn Line Live at Alaska Rock Gym

This was a fun night. Thanks to Evan and the Rock Gym for making it happen.

What really made it great for me was all the people I knew who were there: Brad Meiklejohn, Luc Mehl, Carl Tobin and his daughter named after Steve Garvy, Peggy of course, Chris Flowers, James and Nancy Brady, Rod Hancock, Clint Helander, Sam Johnson, Charlie Sassara, Tony Perelli and Becky King, and a bunch more.

Being live in front of them was comforting and a warm reminder of how great our community is in Anchorage and Alaska.
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