An engaging story of an unusual quest

Review: “Riverman” by Ben McGrath

I remember reading an article in The New Yorker several years ago about a man on the Lower Hudson River paddling south toward Florida. Some time later, the subject’s abandoned canoe was found overturned off the coast of North Carolina. Among effects found inside the craft was contact information for the article’s author, Ben McGrath. Police contacted McGrath hoping for information.

That led the writer himself to investigate further. His assiduous research led him not only to some of the canoeist’s relatives, but also to numerous people who had met him, either during this same journey or earlier. Good nonfiction can require a bit of compulsiveness, and McGrath appears to have it. The result is his book Riverman: An American Odyssey.

It turned out that Richard (“Dick”) Conant had spent much of the previous few years paddling his way along long distance routes. One trip led him from his base in Montana down to the Missouri River and into the Mississippi. On another occasion, he began in Olean, New York, on the Susquehanna River, and finished in the Gulf of Mexico.

The apparent disappearance made me think of the character profiled in Jon Krakauer’s “Into The Wild.” Indeed, both men were variants of what society would deem misfits, and each appeared to have mental health issues. But Conant, unlike Krakauer’s subject, was gregarious and often charismatic. People who met him tended to remember the encounter.

Brought up in a strict military family, Conant excelled through high school then seemed to have some kind of crisis while in college at SUNY Albany. Ultimately he earned his degree, but rather than seek an occupation related to his education, he worked in oil fields and railroads before joining the Navy. A series of odd jobs followed, none of which deterred a certain wanderlust.

For a man who spent much of his life living independently in the outdoors, he left a remarkable number of encounters trackable by McGrath. Impressions of Conant varied, but most remembered him as intelligent and well read, full of interesting stories, and fully focused on his unusual journeys.

To call him quirky may be an understatement. Conant always wore denim bib overalls, a habit he adopted after attending Woodstock in 1969. He carried soy sauce and Tabasco for the heightened flavor they provided when swallowed from their bottles, preserved hot dogs in jars of pickle juice to prevent spoilage, and always kept his cooler full of dry driftwood for fires. Though never one to ask for money or material things, Conant benefited frequently from the kindness of strangers who quickly became friends.

Conant obsessively kept notes of his travels, printing two books on his trips and planning to do a third. He also kept up rent payments on storage units in Montana and Utah. These held a trove of information, albeit not a well-organized one. Many sketches and paintings were found. Among artifacts unearthed was a rejection letter from a medical school to which he had applied at age 42. Probably no one will ever know how serious that pursuit might have been.

So let me add an Adirondack flavor to the odysseys. That overturned canoe also held an annotated bicycle map of Plattsburgh, New York, along with a local coffee receipt. McGrath was ultimately able to show that for his last trip, planned as a Canada-to-Florida canoe route, Conant began with a longhaul bus ticket to Plattsburgh in June 2014.

Camping overnight somewhere north of the city, Conant went to Champlain Mall and bought a canoe, and eventually launched from Dead Creek into Cumberland Bay. He paddled down Lake Champlain, along the length of the Hudson River, through New York Harbor and Chesapeake Bay, and apparently at least as far as the region of Albemarle Sound on the North Carolina coast.

The book introduces its readers to a broad swath of characters even beyond its main focus. Digressions revealed an amazing number of individuals who “just ended up somewhere.” It reminded me both of the eternal appeal of being on the road (or in this case, on the river), and the trade-offs in terms of hardship and danger.

Conant is especially unusual, with his quest both for solitude and camaraderie. I finished the engaging text not only speculating about its primary subject, with his journeys of constant possibility but also consistent peril; I also pondered how many other unusual lives must be lived by people who never receive the elucidation that McGrath provided for Conant.


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