Anne Chadwick Williams / Bee file, 2003

Bill Griffith was known as an American River paddling competitor and environmentalist.

Obituary: Wildlife biologist Bill Griffith loved Eppie's Great Race

Published: Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3B
Last Modified: Monday, Jan. 14, 2013 - 8:54 am

Bill Griffith, a wildlife biologist and paddling enthusiast who competed in every Eppie's Great Race since 1976, has died at 85.

He died Dec. 27 of cardiac arrest while napping at home after his daily routine paddling on the American River, said his daughter Lysandra.

Mr. Griffith was well known in the paddling community as a veteran competitor, water-safety expert and environmental steward. Year-round, the athletic octogenarian could be seen shouldering a kayak or canoe to the river behind his home in the Larchmont-Riviera neighborhood.

He paddled on teams in 37 consecutive Eppie's races, starting with the third annual triathlon in 1976 and compiling an impressive record of first-, second- and third-place ribbons. He was featured in many news stories and became an ambassador for the race, which is billed as the world's oldest triathlon and the biggest paddling event in the United States.

Mr. Griffith considered quitting Eppie's eight years ago but decided to enter the tandem division with friend Phil Lutz and continued winning ribbons.

"He was pretty good-natured about it, but we were very competitive," Lutz said. "He loved doing the race."

Mr. Griffith spent 40 years as a biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. He worked in Central Valley field offices and was a manager and supervisor in regional and headquarters offices in Sacramento. He retired in 1990 as coordinator of the department's wildlife and pesticides program.

He taught canoeing and kayaking classes as a volunteer for more than 40 years with the American Red Cross. He also served in disaster relief and oversaw emergency shelters for residents left homeless by flooding in 1986.

Born in 1927 in Rochester, N.Y., William Henry Griffith III was a handsome only child whose parents moved him to Los Angeles in hopes that he would become an actor. Instead, he joined the Navy for four years after graduating from Hollywood High School. He earned a wildlife management degree from Utah State Agricultural College.

He was an active member of the Save the American River Association and the Audubon Society. He served on the Sacramento County Parks and Recreation Commission and spoke at schools and colleges about wildlife and natural resources found along the American River.

Mr. Griffith had three children with his wife of 53 years, Vesta, who died in 2006. He enjoyed the outdoors as a longtime hunter and fisherman, and he belonged to the National Rifle Association.

He felt a special connection to the American River on his daily paddling excursions and kept a log of wildlife sightings along a two-mile stretch. Gliding in and out of protected areas, he stopped to pull out invasive plants and skim litter off the tranquil water surface.

"He always said it was the best place to feel rejuvenated," his daughter said. "It gave him great peace of mind."

Bill Griffith

Born: Jan. 18, 1927

Died: Dec. 21, 2012

Survived by: Son, Dana of Penryn; daughters, Lysandra of Sacramento, and Gayle of Fond du Lac, Wis.; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren

Services: Memorial, 1 to 3 p.m. Jan. 19 at Hagan Community Park, Building 1, 2197 Chase Drive, Rancho Cordova

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