Alaska Shorts: “Landscape of Anguish,” by Kaylene Johnson

Kaylene Johnson

It’s the little mistakes that kill you.
Shivering, with frozen fingertips, Dick could not thread the
zipper of his sleeping bag back onto its track. Stunned, he wondered for a
moment if this was it. If this would be the one small detail that tipped the
He quickly wrapped himself the best he could in his sleeping
bag and crawled into the two-foot-deep snow trench he had dug for himself. This
would be his shelter for the night. At minus thirty degrees, with winds howling
up to forty miles an hour, the wind chill factor was more than one hundred
degrees below zero. He had staked his sled and backpack into the snow using his
ski poles to keep them from blowing away.
Snow drifted in over the trench, covering him with an
insulating layer of snow. He began to feel warmer. As his body warmed, so did
the frostbitten parts of his anatomy. The wind that had pressed at his back all
day — which had been strong enough to push his sled out in front of him — had
frozen the flesh of his backside and legs.
He was terribly thirsty.
Less than two days earlier, on March 10, 1980, Dick had been
lying in the loft of his friends Roosevelt and Beth Paneak’s home in Anaktuvuk
Pass. It was the night before his trek and the plan was to ski from Anaktuvuk
Pass to Bettles and then over the mountains to the village of Tanana and on to
the Yukon River. It was to be a 300-mile trek through rugged country with snow
deep enough to swallow snowmachines.
With snow conditions as they were, Dick decided to lighten
his load. He left his tent behind, opting instead for a large, heavy-duty
sleeping bag that would shelter him from the cold. A layer of spruce boughs
would be his bed. If necessary, he could build snow caves for shelter. He also
decided to leave his stove and fuel at home. He liked a wood fire best, and as
he had on previous trips, he would gather wood as he traveled. He also left his
Gortex bibs behind. His plan was to keep moving at a good clip and take as
little as necessary to stay agile and quick.
The 1959 trip from Kaktovik to Anaktuvuk Pass had taught him
a great deal about wilderness travel in the North. Later in 1977, Dick walked
150 miles and floated 450 miles from Anaktuvuk Pass to Kotzebue with his friend
Bruce Stafford. Between mosquitoes, rain, and rivers swollen with floodwaters,
he learned that travel was best done before “breakup” — the time of year when
Alaska’s daylight grows longer but before the warmer weather of spring melts
the ice on rivers. Two years later in 1979, he traveled solo on foot and by ski
from Nuiqsut to Anaktuvuk Pass, a distance of two hundred miles.
People asked him why he took these trips, and sometimes he
wondered himself. On his 1979 solo journey he reflected, “There are moments I
don’t know why I’m here. It’s cold and the landscape is monotonous. Progress is
slow and the distance ahead seems to be unreachable. You need the capacity to
see beauty even when it’s not pretty every day.”
He learned he could travel much lighter. On the solo trip,
he’d dropped a lot of gear — a thermos, food, a wet down jacket, even his sled.
“This is a situation where possessions can forfeit freedom,” he wrote. On that
trek he also noted, “Comfort is best when interspersed with moments of great
He would soon discover the slender thread between discomfort
and disaster.
Kaylene Johnson is a writer and long-time
Alaskan who lives in Eagle River, Alaska. She writes non-fiction, biography,
and memoir including A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising Sons in Alaska. Her
award winning essays and articles have appeared in the Louisville Review,
Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and several Alaska anthologies. She
holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University
in Louisville, Kentucky.
This excerpts comes
from Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness
Travels of Dick Griffith
, which recounts the remarkable journeys of Alaska
legend Dick Griffith. Canyons and Ice offers a rare look at the man behind the
soaring achievements and occasionally death-defying moments. A grand tale of
adventure, Griffith’s story is also a reflection on what motivates a man to
traverse some of the most remote places on earth. To read the rest of the
excerpt, download the
free Alaska Sampler 2014
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