"Riverman" | Reviewed by Bill Winkler
On Labor Day morning 2014, Ben McGrath was preparing to launch his kayak into the Hudson River when he noticed a battered red plastic canoe, crammed to the gunwales with food and equipment, lashed to his neighbor’s dock. The canoe’s owner was enjoying breakfast in his neighbor’s home before resuming his planned 8-month water journey from the upper reaches of the Hudson to Naples, Florida.
McGrath accepted the invitation to meet the canoeist, whose name was Dick Conant. After a lengthy interview with Conant McGrath, a long-time staff writer at “The New Yorker,” published a brief piece titled “Southbound” in the magazine’s Talk of the Town section.
Three months later McGrath received a call from North Carolina. A red canoe had been found overturned in the waters of Albemarle Sound with no trace of its owner. McGrath’s name and phone number had been written in one of the notebooks salvaged from the canoe’s contents. It was apparent that the canoe was Conant’s. McGrath traveled to North Carolina to participate in the search for Conant, but as the search went cold and was eventually placed on the back burner, McGrath decided to investigate the life of this riverine nomad on his own.
The result is McGrath’s first book, “Riverman.” In it the author describes his search for the Riverman, using information he had gleaned from his interview with Conant months before as a starting point. He discovered that Conant had maintained rental of storage units in Bozeman, Montana. From this data and from interviews with Conant’s family McGrath has created an in depth portrait of a fascinating, unique individual.
Conant was one of nine children of a retired Army officer whose alcoholism ultimately cost him his marriage and his family. Conant was a brilliant but erratic student who attended one year of seminary but was asked not to return. His wandering began in his early 20s and he found his way to Montana where he settled before enlisting, in his 30s, in the Navy. A medical discharge sent him back to Montana, and it was there that he developed his canoeing skills on the Yellowstone River. Ever longer river journeys convinced him that such a life was his calling, culminating in his final planned trip down the Atlantic seaboard in 2014.
McGrath was able to locate and interview hundreds of people who encountered Conant over the years. Through their words (and Conant’s own, through his recovered journals) we come to know Conant as a complex, intelligent, principled individual who lived his life to the fullest, always on his own terms.
“Riverman” is a deeply researched, well-written book that introduces us not only to a character we wish we could have met, but also to life on America’s rivers, large and small.