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In 'Riverman,' New Yorker writer Ben McGrath chronicles a canoeist's odyssey

A white man with glasses wearing a black shirt stands in front of a river.
Matt Dellinger
/
Penguin Randomhouse
In "Riverman," Ben McGrath tells the story of itinerant canoeist Dick Conant.

Dick Conant — Navy vet, former janitor and social misfit — paddled America’s rivers and waterways for more than two decades. He canoed the length of the Mississippi River, the Hudson River, and Lake Champlain. Wearing his trademark overalls and weaving tales of his travels amid sips of straight Tabasco, Conant left a lasting impression on hundreds of Americans across the country. Then, he disappeared.

The New Yorker staff writer Ben McGrath met Conant when he paddled through McGrath’s Hudson River town in 2014. McGrath tells Conant’s story in the new book “Riverman: An American Odyssey.” McGrath spoke with Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak about his extensive research into Conant's life and disappearance, and his quest to preserve his unique legacy.

Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: This book starts with a mystery. Conant's red canoe is found overturned in North Carolina with no Conant in sight. Authorities found your name and phone number among his belongings. You’d written a “Talk of the Town” column about him in the New Yorker a few months prior. Did his disappearance lead you to write this book, or had you already been considering investigating his life in more detail?

Ben McGrath: He's a fascinating guy, and I talked to him probably more than I needed to for the sake of that article. But no, I did not imagine a book until he disappeared. I had sort of put him out of my mind. I was thrust right back into it when [the police] called me. When they called me they were hoping that I was going to say, “Oh, you found my canoe.” They didn't even know whose it was.

Mikaela Lefrak: He traveled thousands of miles in that canoe on some of the country's biggest rivers and small tributaries. Can you give us a physical description of him and the canoe he called home?

Ben McGrath: In an email that I sent to a couple of friends the first day I met him, I called him a canoeing Santa. He was large, more than six feet tall, probably approaching 300 pounds, and wearing denim overalls, and had a beard. He was in his 60s and red as a lobster. He had a plastic canoe that he bought at Dick's Sporting Goods for $300s. It was heaped with tarps and army surplus duffels and trash bags. When he got in the boat, there were just a few inches of freeboard, and any wave could’ve come over the bow.

A large man with a beard and blue overalls sits on a sidewalk and smiles, with his red canoe behind him.
Courtesy of Ben McGrath / Penguin Randomhouse
/
Dick Conant during an urban portage in Trenton, New Jersey to the Delaware River in October 2014.

Mikaela Lefrak: Conant took copious notes throughout his travels, often on the atlases that he was carrying with him. I'm hoping you can read one excerpt from his notes, which you include in the book.

Ben McGrath: Sure. [reads] “Life is blooming all around me. I am in my tent warm and dry as rain falls gently upon my tarp and runs quietly down the Ponderosa bark. Geese are copulating as my canoe sways along the routes from the nearby bank. I'm reading about Chaucer's England in the 14th century. Meanwhile, I am eating peanuts, pretzels, hot sauce, and Tabasco sauce, drinking beer, and smoking tobacco. I'm enjoying good solid peace at eight in the morning.”

Mikaela Lefrak: I love that passage, because the concept of “good solid peace at eight in the morning” definitely eludes me right now. What can we learn from Conant about joy?

Ben McGrath: Everything is in that passage, really. On the one hand, this guy is drinking beer at eight in the morning, and on the other hand he’s reading Chaucer. I think a lot of people connect with the idea of leaving everything behind and setting yourself free from the constraints you have in your life, whether it's your job or your family obligations, or taking your kids to Little League. Conant hadn't given up the kind of urges that a teenager would have. Even the Tabasco sauce. I asked him about it, and he looked a little startled at first, like he hadn't considered that it was a weird thing to do. There’s something primal about that. He's just like, well, you know, if I'm going to be doing this, I might as well have a fun, flavorful existence. And I think that's kind of cool.

Mikaela Lefrak: He also was a lonely character. It comes up many times in the book that he always envisioned himself as one day being a man with a family. How did he struggle with that?

Ben McGrath: He told me kind of explicitly that he kind of envied me. At the time I met him, I had one child and another one on the way. And that was something he had always wanted. He wanted the picket fence and the dog. While acknowledging the real loneliness and struggles of his life, I did want to take his joy seriously, because he had done something kind of remarkable, which was to insist on finding joy in his life despite not being able to succeed in the way he had imagined.

Some of the central mysteries of this book remain unresolved at the end. As a journalist, was it hard to stop reporting?

Ben McGrath: It was very hard to stop reporting, in part because he left so much behind. He wrote endlessly about everything he encountered. Every time he met someone, he kind of interviewed them like a journalist would, just for his own personal edification, and he would write down everything. When I first met him, I worried a little bit about him after he told me that he lived outside even when he wasn't canoeing. There was a part of me that felt like I needed to do something more for him, but I didn't know what to do. So when he disappeared, I felt a little guilt and responsibility, and yet I wasn't able to literally save his body. I kind of transplanted that into a new mission, which was saving his life story.

Mikaela Lefrak: Did Conant ever make it to Vermont during his travels?

Ben McGrath: He did, though only very briefly. He launched his boat in Plattsburgh, New York – he was trying to go from Canada to Florida. The closest Greyhound bus he could get to the to the Canadian border was Plattsburgh (he didn't have a passport so he couldn't actually go across). So he launched on Lake Champlain, but on the New York side, and he mostly hugged the New York side of the lake. But as you know, Champlain gets narrower and narrower the farther south you go, and Vermont is not so far from New York. He went over around Benson, Vermont and wandered around. I don't think he had any interactions with Vermont civilians – he saw a bald eagle and a couple of dogs. He kept going and got to the canal between Champlain and the Hudson. From that point on, he was on his way.

Broadcast on Friday, June 3, 2022, at noon.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with Mikaela Lefrak on Twitter @MikaelaLefrak.

Mikaela Lefrak joined Vermont Public in 2021 as co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra joined Vermont Public as a producer for Vermont Edition in January 2022. Before moving to Vermont, she was a journalist in New York City for 20 years. She has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University.