‘Riverman’ chronicles the life of Dick Conant, genial nomad of America’s rivers

‘Riverman’ chronicles the life of Dick Conant, genial nomad of America’s rivers


Here & Now‘s Robin Younger speaks with New Yorker writer Ben McGrath about his new guide “Riverman: An American Odyssey.”

The e-book explores the life of Dick Conant, who constantly canoed rivers across America in advance of mysteriously disappearing in 2014.

A self-portrait, in cracked egg, hints at a rebirth around the time that Conant first took to the water. (Courtesy)
A self-portrait, in cracked egg, hints at a rebirth all-around the time that Conant to start with took to the water. (Courtesy)

E-book excerpt: ‘Riverman’

By Ben McGrath 

Stone-Age Mentality

The most excellent day in the very full, topsy-turvy existence of Richard Perry Conant occurred in his forty-ninth calendar year, in the summer time of 1999. An auspicious begin: he awoke without feeling sick. He was camped in a grove on the east financial institution of the Yellowstone River, whose drinking water he had drunk, untreated, in fantastic portions the night time ahead of. Was it Monday? He was not quite confident. Fortunately, he was shedding track of time. A minimal extra than a week had passed considering the fact that he’d quit his task, as a janitor at the VA clinic in Boise, declaring himself fed up with the Clinton impeachment indulgence and possibly modernity alone. In advance of leaving, he’d stashed some frozen fish in the attic of the house he’d been renting, a stink bomb on delayed fuse. Then he’d pushed to Yellowstone National Park, wherever he spied elk, goats, buffalo, and—on the Blacktail Plateau, amid lush meadows—a black bear. Finally, he’d absent to Walmart and bought a canoe, which he launched near the border of Montana and Wyoming. Vacation spot: Gulf of Mexico.

Conant was now downstream of Yankee Jim Canyon, a slender cleaving of the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges that chokes the river into an angry froth. He experienced capsized a couple of days previously while battling with a swift regarded as Boateater, and been privileged to eliminate only a machete and a hat in the system. The water was frigid, and he’d briefly reconsidered his choices, amid them including outriggers for security. But he no more time experienced access to a car or truck, with which to resupply. As he stood on a bridge that early morning, gazing nervously ahead, a truck driver stopped and questioned, only 50 {ed4a5fd24114d7ae6500c97fa7652b3915c7d898a0860a9d70161be4f9c5b00d} joking, if somebody experienced drowned. Not so humorous. Conant ate a brief breakfast (incredibly hot yams, a lot more river drinking water), and established about rearranging his equipment, which bundled Pepto Bismol and a marble composition e-book in which he’d jotted a handful of reminders: “REMEDY FOR BUGS. Hold SWATTING. How to get via rapids—hold on limited. Shut EYES.” Overlook the outriggers. He was below way, a lone canoeist amid scattered dories in a seven-knot present, at about 10 a.m.

As a younger man, Conant produced art that hinted at torment. (Courtesy)
As a younger guy, Conant manufactured artwork that hinted at torment. (Courtesy)

The canyon partitions receded and he shot out into the valley, flanked in the in close proximity to length by 10-thousand-foot peaks. Cottonwoods lining the banking institutions yielded summer season snow to the flukey breeze. On the h2o, swirling eddies materialized and vanished inexplicably, although rainbow trout breached in the periphery of his vision. Paradise Valley: a identify perfectly deserved. Conant experienced traveled considerably of the planet, and established foot in all forty-8 contiguous states, and he deemed this the most picturesque river valley he had knowledgeable up near.

Afternoon brought heavy temperature and a slalom course, as the straightaways shortened and he coped ably with shoals and rapids. By some means, in the course of sliding forty-5 miles, he scraped just two rocks. And then, 50 percent an hour just before sunset, he arrived, brimming with adrenaline, in Livingston, a city that seemed composed of equal elements galleries and saloons. Yuppies and cowboys. A male like Conant—an old art main with Falstaffian appetites—could think about having made use of to these kinds of a spot.

But he was on a mission, of a form. He experienced notions of shelling out Xmas in Mississippi (Natchez or Vicksburg), and of ringing in the millennium in New Orleans. He believed it greatest not to “tarry,” as he favored to say, wondering of his deceased father, an army colonel with a performative feeling of rectitude. He received a tiny money gambling at a hotel casino on the south end of city, and put in the more income on Bernard DeVoto’s abridged Journals of Lewis and Clark, great companionship for a transcontinental river trip.

In a park in close proximity to some ballfields, although Conant repacked his boat, a youthful brunette was walking her canine. They bought to talking. Her title was Tracy. She seemed intrigued by his strategies, perhaps even amazed by his derring-do. Conant, who experienced been dressing additional or much less solely in bib overalls considering that Woodstock, experienced grown common in current decades with getting regarded as a misfit somewhat than a rugged charmer: a janitor, just after all, in spite of a graduate instruction. A gifted purely natural athlete, he now carried nicely around two hundred pounds on his six-foot-1 frame. No matter his evocative blue eyes and wispy blond hair. He was highly perceptive, and at times delicate to a fault. Nonetheless in this article was somebody, most likely, who noticed him the way he was still established to see himself: clever, adventurous, charismatic, bold.

Tracy questioned what he planned to do when he was completed with the journey. It was a normal issue, and a heady one particular. What need to a center-aged guy who has give up his work and stink-bombed his house hope for, right after conquering additional than 3 thousand miles on a single of the earth’s longest unbroken chains of river—Yellowstone to Missouri to Mississippi? He appreciated university towns and huge skies. He favored hospitals: before becoming a janitor, he’d worked as a scrub, prepping for surgical procedure. He explained that he was thinking of settling close by, in Bozeman, with an eye toward learning bacteriology. A minor late to resume a medical profession, but the vigorous very long paddle into city had remaining him experience youthful and optimistic. Reflecting on the trade as he ongoing downriver, he recalled a bashful glimmer in the woman’s eyes at the prospect of his returning. “I hope I see Tracy once again,” he wrote in his composition e book.


little people. (Courtesy)
little folks. (Courtesy)

Soon after a 7 days afloat, he identified himself at times unsteady on his feet, the floor seeming to increase and tumble beneath him, as however carried by waves. He discovered to avoid the gunpowder-grey sand, which was deceptively yielding, and able of sucking the footwear off his ankles, in favor of gravel bars, the rockier the greater. The river shed two thousand feet in elevation in a couple hundred miles, and then, obtaining left the mountains powering, began to slow. The temperature climbed earlier mentioned a hundred. The lush valley turned into prairie badlands, with purple streaks and coal in the ochre bluffs. He noticed paw prints larger sized than his possess hands, and a bobcat the peak of a German shepherd.

The vertigo subsided, but bugs ended up a persistent trouble: black flies so adept at the hit-and-run that Conant identified himself unable to distinguish between real bites and phantom bites—a sort of preemptive paranoia gnats, which he inhaled by the cloudful and mosquitos, in no way a lot more frustrating than when they dive-bombed the moisture of his eyeballs and obtained trapped in his defensive lids. Though learning the elements lists in quite a few of the itch-aid solutions offered in drugstores, he observed that ammonia stored recurring. So he scoured the cleaning supplies, and bought himself a pint of Parsons’ Domestic, for a buck-fifty. Right after a localized experiment made no skin rashes, he began obtaining the stuff in bulk and making use of it as a extensive everyday salve. On his hands and feet, and even his facial area, in the meantime, he applied Bag Balm, a lanolin-primarily based livestock disinfectant, to seal cracks and stave off chilblains. When he ran out of shoe grease for his boots, he tried the Bag Balm on them, as effectively, and located that it repelled humidity just as properly, and for fifty percent the price.

The frames of his glasses were being pitted with metallic that started to rust just after the capsizing at Yankee Jim Canyon, but he was regaining his evening vision, a source of pleasure from his navy days as a ship’s navigator. Approaching Sidney, close to the North Dakota border, he observed five capturing stars, and later on designed his way again to the canoe from town by starlight, via fields of wheat and corn. The air was so very clear, and absolutely free of dust, that he realized he experienced gone a pair of months without the urge to pick his nose. For examining and crafting at camp, he created what he believed of as a Chinese lantern, standing a white plastic dishwashing basin on its side and positioning a row of citronella gel candles driving it, shielded from wind. By the conclude of August, he experienced regressed to a “stone-age mentality,” as he put it, fashioning acoustic chambers (for his radio) and cooking stoves out of sedimentary rocks, and burning the coal for gas. He experienced also acquired a passenger: a mouse, which was nibbling holes in his dry baggage in lookup of food stuff.

Conant’s merger with the Missouri was uneventful, but the addition of the Minor Muddy River, outside Williston, produced a labyrinth of delta hedgerows and willow islands in which he received misplaced. Though seeking a area to camp, amid electrical storms, he was chased by a steer. He uncovered a cave with bones littered all over the entrance and developed himself a sleeping coffin out of driftwood, “a Lincoln Log type of a deal.”

Natural beauty portrayed in Dick Conant's work. (Courtesy)
Normal magnificence portrayed in Dick Conant’s work. (Courtesy)

Just after the labyrinth, the Missouri was a lot less a river than a chain of elongated lakes, with scalloped shorelines, backed up at the rear of huge dams. In the mornings, he was in some cases greeted by countless numbers of huge-scaled carp at the surface area, so plentiful that he experienced to be watchful not to bat them with his paddle. For lengthy stretches he could detect no current, but there were being legitimate sea swells and surfable breakers. He felt as if he have been on the Atlantic. When paddling into headwinds, he discovered to time his strokes to coincide with the arrival of cresting waves by his aspect, therefore shortening his reach by various inches. With adhering to seas, he tried out to soak up wave thrusts on his starboard aft quarter and then grab the crests with his paddle as they passed by.

October introduced screeching ravens, the scent of fresh wild mint, and, one particular early morning, a thick fog that yielded to slanting sleet that blasted his corneas. A few of days afterwards, observing excellent cumulus formations drifting west in a constant stream in excess of the Decrease Brule Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota, he quickly realized that the jap fifty percent of the sky was entirely blue. Then he observed wisps of humidity increasing from the center of the river: a cloud fountain.

He enjoyed vivid desires: porpoises leaping the turnstiles of a flooded subway station. He uncovered to stow primo driftwood in his cooler, so that he’d have dry kindling even when it rained. He identified a awesome thing about touring south at a dammed river’s speed via the fall: the elongation of peak foliage, before long to be stretching into a third thirty day period.

The trip’s tough midpoint, each by distance and thematically, was Sioux Town, Iowa, wherever the shipping channel begins—or finishes, if you are a tugboat captain touring upstream from New Orleans. Conant celebrated the conclusion of the wilder fifty percent of his journey by checking his blood tension at a grocery store kiosk. It experienced plunged from 200/100 to 120/77. No improved medication. A handful of times afterwards, near Decatur, Nebraska, he was woke up for the 1st time by the sound of a tug pushing a barge. “I scrutinized the resulting wave motion,” he wrote. “It did not swamp my boat as I feared it might. These waves were navigable. Basic safety will demand consistent vigilance.” In advance lay Omaha, Kansas Town, St. Louis, Memphis: a buoyant highway.

Excerpted from “Riverman” by Ben McGrath. Copyright © 2022 by Ben McGrath. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt might be reproduced or reprinted without having authorization in creating from the publisher.


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