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Extended adventure

Dr. Richard Byrd, 80,  works full time at Rockwood Clinic but finds time for his recreational pursuits such as climbing mountains. He pauses in the hallway of the clinic Feb. 5 for a photo. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)
Dr. Richard Byrd, 80, works full time at Rockwood Clinic but finds time for his recreational pursuits such as climbing mountains. He pauses in the hallway of the clinic Feb. 5 for a photo. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)

Pulmonary doctor fills off-hours trekking the globe

When it comes to breathing, South Side resident Dr. Richard Byrd is an expert, but not just because he’s a pulmonary specialist at Rockwood Clinic. When he isn’t working, Byrd, 80, is out pursuing a life of breathtaking adventure.

From mountaineering, trekking and adventure camping to canoeing and kayaking, he’s pushed his limits in wilderness all over the world.

A life of adventure may be in his blood, said Byrd, noting that his third cousin was Richard Byrd, the American explorer and aviator who was the first person to fly over the North Pole. “There is an adventure gene. Maybe that is a family trait I inherited.”

While Byrd and his wife, Lori, traveled a lot when he was an officer in the Air Force, he said most of his adventures have been in the last 30 years, after he turned 50. His first major excursion was reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. That was just the beginning.

He’s hiked to the base camps at both Mount Everest and K2, where the air is notoriously thin. At 20,000 feet, he said, your breathing gets very fast and deeper than usual.

He and his wife canoed at the Galapagos Islands, where they were instructed to not touch a thing in the fragile ecosystem. Then a seal jumped aboard their kayak and sat in Lori’s lap.

The couple flew from Iceland to northeastern Greenland to kayak, a trip that took 10 years to arrange with permission from the natives. But it was worth it. They saw natural beauty no one had seen before by sea kayak.

But that’s not all. Byrd has trekked in Nepal, India and Buton, an island in Indonesia. He’s canoed Alaska’s Noatak River into the Bering Sea, kayaked the Strait of Magellan in Chile and ridden 400 miles of white water on the Nahanni River in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories.

Last summer, while trekking 200 miles across England, walking an average of 20 miles each day, Byrd wondered if he was in good enough shape to run a marathon, a feat he hadn’t tried yet. So, this fall he ran the Portland Marathon, just before he turned 80.

“People say that marathons start at mile 20,” he said, nodding in agreement. “After mile 20 you’re not in your body. It is totally mental effort. I’m still sore from it.”

As a doctor, Byrd recommends everyone get at least 30 minutes of exercise three times a week, whether it’s walking or doing something more strenuous. And he is a living example of those benefits.

“Exercise is the most inexpensive drug,” he said. “It does a great variety of things, from decreasing the risk of heart disease and some cancers to making you more mentally alert. Use this free medicine.”

Though the marathon was the most challenging physically from a continuous exertion standpoint, Byrd said some of his other adventures have been extremely mentally and emotionally challenging.

While sea kayaking, for example, they almost got blown into the North Sea when an unexpected storm hit. “We had to paddle for our lives,” he said.

Though wildnerness adventures naturally have an element of danger, sometimes half the danger is just getting back to civilization, said Byrd. He described coming back down a mountain in India, where they had hired drivers to transport them down a narrow, treacherous road. “All the drivers were smoking hashish,” he said. “A power line had come down and was burning. The lead Jeep driver slammed on his brakes to take a look and ours pancaked into it. The danger is part transportation.”

Getting there can also be challenging. Byrd recalled trekking through western China on the way to hike K2. They had 17 camels carrying the group’s gear up to 12,000 feet. “You have to trek 100 miles to get to the base of K2,” he said, describing how they stopped to rest in a river valley oasis surrounded by barren rocks. That’s when 14 of their camels ran away.

With many memories like these, Byrd is making more. “It is the challenge of doing something different and seeing something different,” he said.

“The things he enjoys are high energy. He is not sedentary,” Lori Byrd said.

“I think he is admirable doing all these things.” She said she appreciates that her husband continues to travel and seek adventure, living life to the fullest. She described how many of her contemporaries are widowed or have husbands who spend a lot of time in recliners. “That’s a limiting way of doing things. If you have an opportunity to do something, do it,” she said.

Byrd agrees, but adds that his experiences needn’t be unique. “Most people, with training, have the ability to do anything I’ve done,” he said. “It’s because of willpower and hard work.”