Dick Conant on the Salmon River
Dick Conant on the Salmon River
Dick Conant on the Salmon River in 1994 (Photo: From Dick Conant’s personal collection)

The Time I Crossed Paths with a Modern Day Huck Finn

In an excerpt from his new book, ‘Riverman,’ writer Ben McGrath recounts how he met an itinerant canoeist named Dick Conant, a fascinating character who mysteriously disappeared shortly thereafter

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In the summer of 1999, Richard Perry Conant, age 48, quit his job as a janitor at the VA hospital in Boise, declaring himself fed up with the Clinton impeachment indulgence and maybe modernity itself. Before leaving town, he stashed some frozen fish in the attic of the house he’d been renting, a stink bomb on delayed fuse. Then he drove to Yellowstone National Park, where he spied elk, goats, buffalo, and—on the Blacktail Plateau, amid lush meadows—a black bear. Finally, he went to Walmart and bought a canoe, which he launched near the border of Montana and Wyoming. Destination: Gulf of Mexico.

I met him 15 years later. In my day job as a journalist, I’ve seen more than enough stunts, and had Dick Conant’s peculiar voyages come to my attention by way of a press release, touting yet another attempt at some kind of arbitrary “record” in a postmodern world lacking authentic frontiers, I might have dismissed or ignored it. But he found me, as he did countless others, purely by accident—at the foot of my street, in a small town on the west bank of the Hudson River, 20 miles north of Midtown Manhattan. His current mission, or so my neighbor told me, was paddling a canoe “from Canada to Florida.” I glanced at the vessel parked near the seawall: it was red, made of plastic, and packed as if for the apocalypse, with army surplus duffels and tarps and trash bags. And then there was the skipper himself: dressed in bib overalls, muddy brown boots, sporting a patchy, rust-colored beard, and laughing with great heaves of an ample gut. He called himself a snowbird—a retiree traveling south at the pace (more or less) of driftwood—and offered a handshake firmer than any I can recall.

It was Labor Day 2014, and I had my two-year-old son with me; I was off the clock. We soon said goodbye and good luck to the traveler, with a million or more questions unanswered, and it wasn’t until the next day, thinking again of my son and of the bedtime story that I’d let slip away, that I determined to chase Conant down. The Hudson where we live is two and a half miles wide—the Tappan Zee, a Dutch word for sea. On foggy mornings and during snowstorms, the distant eastern shore vanishes, and it’s possible, if you have a yearning cast of mind, to imagine that you’ve been marooned. What better illustration of the imaginative possibilities of life alongside a big river than the sudden arrival of a bearded giant from a distant land with a grip that could kill and a laugh as disarming as St. Nick’s?

I drove south to a marina near the George Washington Bridge, beyond which, I felt sure, I’d never find him. He’d be lost—ostensibly forever—in an urban mess of ferries and barges and bulkheads. Inside an office on the dock, I found a clerk and asked if she’d seen a hillbilly in a canoe. Blank stare. I tried elaborating on the nature and scope of Conant’s journey, such as I (barely) understood it, and she finally cut me off: “Some people have too much time on their hands.”

I was actually in a bit of a hurry—on the hook for daycare pickup duty in less than two hours. But I felt reasonably sure, from the clerk’s reaction, that Conant was still en route, so I began hiking quickly upriver, along a rocky trail. Raising a pair of binoculars after a couple of minutes, I spotted something colorful just beyond the nearest jetty, a few hundred yards ahead. It turned out to be a deflated Mylar balloon.

Urban portage to the Delaware, Trenton, NJ, October 2014.
Dick Conant in Trenton, New Jersey, in 2014 (Photo: James Halliday)

A computer printout in my bag proved that I wasn’t alone in my curiosity. It was from a six-year-old thread on a Texas kayak fishermen’s forum. “I thought your membership would be interested in the adventures of Dick Conant,” one post read. “Mr. Conant is paddling a dark green heavily loaded 16′ canoe along our stretch of the intercoastal waterway. He left Buffalo New York in early July, paddling alone.” Looking at the printout again, as I dithered, I was beset by a feeling of inadequacy. Conant had evidently made it all the way to Texas once before, from considerably north of where I now stood, sweating uncomfortably in 90-degree heat. If nothing else, he wasn’t the kind of person who gives up on a crazy idea.

So I trudged on, and after a mile, looking through the binoculars again, I spied the flash of a yellow paddle blade and a sliver of red bobbing in the ebb tide.

“Do you have something to drink, like a soda pop?” Conant asked, after carefully backing his canoe onto a beach beneath the Palisades. I mistook it for a request and stammered a little, while apologizing for arriving empty-handed. “Would you like one?” he said. I declined, not wanting to waste his supplies. “It’s no waste—believe me,” he said, his voice dissolving into warm laughter. “I’m going to get a glass of water myself.” He lifted a green tarp and revealed a large Coleman cooler amidships. Then he unscrewed the cap of an empty Gatorade bottle and dipped it into the melted ice in the cooler. After he’d replaced the cap and given the bottle a few vigorous shakes, the water inside looked only semitranslucent. He pointed in the cooler to a Mt. Olive jar stuffed with kosher franks and said, “I take hot dogs and I put ’em in pickle juice. If I run out of ice, the brine will keep them from going bad.”

I showed him my printout with various Texans remarking on his prior travels from Buffalo. He seemed amused—evidently not a self-Googler—though he felt compelled to correct it. “That’s pretty close,” he said. “Actually, near Buffalo. Place called Olean”—Oh-lee-ann. “On the headwaters of the Allegheny River. I took the Allegheny down to Pittsburgh, where it joins the Monongahela and forms the Ohio. I took the Ohio down to the Mississippi as far as the mouth of the old Red River, which has a lock in it now—it’s what they call a flood-control management area. And the Atchafalaya—I got on the Atchafalaya, went through the lock, goes up ten to 12 feet. Took the Atchafalaya down to Morgan City, and there’s a town on the left side of the river whose name I forgot. I got on the Gulf Intracoastal there, in Louisiana. I took the Intracoastal all the way down to South Texas.”

Dick Conant’s canoe in 2014 (Photo: From Dick Conant’s personal collection)

I had scarcely finished connecting the squiggly lines on the imperfect map in my mind before he began describing another voyage (“if you can keep up with me”) that made the previous one sound like a lap around a duck pond. It involved descending the full length of the Mississippi and then ascending several rivers (the Mobile, the Tombigbee, the Tennessee, the Holston) through the Southeast, before hitching a ride over the Appalachians, relaunching on the James River, and making his way down to Hampton Roads (“where the Monitor and the Merrimack had their battle in the Civil War”) and eventually Portsmouth. The whole adventure lasted nearly 14 months. Midway through his recounting, around the time he was extolling the virtues of a “goooood Baptist family” he’d met in Louisiana, I noticed that his digital watch was set to mountain standard time. “Yeah, I’m from Bozeman, Montana,” he explained. “I met my girl near there. I met my girl in Livingston, which is across the mountain pass.”

By sheer luck, I’d flagged him down at what he deemed an enviable campsite, with a narrow grass strip abutting some stone ruins and a view of northern Manhattan across the river. He began to settle in, especially after examining a New York State road atlas and concluding that he’d traveled nearly a dozen miles since dawn. “Golly, I did well this afternoon,” he said. “I ain’t going no further. That’s a good day’s work.”

The atlas itself was a marvel, its pages covered in blue ink—tidy block letters, all caps—such that in places you could scarcely make out the underlying map details. It could have passed for the work of an outsider artist. “I started keeping a regular journal, but I found that I was so tired at the end of the day,” he said. “So what I do is, I keep notes as I go, and that way I don’t have to remember things at night.” He had a computer buried deep in a drybag so that he could type up “a prose account” of the journey when it was complete. “I’ve written three books,” he said. “I’m just not published. Because, by the time I get done writing, I’m so tired of living in the city that I’m ready to go out on another trip!” His notes on the atlas included descriptions of wind and current and waterfowl, as well as of various social interactions and other stray thoughts. Up by the Indian Point nuclear plant, he’d written “Drowning Mona,” the title of a comedy, set nearby, in which a character played by Bette Midler mysteriously drives off a cliff to her death in the Hudson River.

At night, meanwhile, instead of journaling, he read novels, seeking an escape from his escapism. “Now I’m reading Clive Cussler, something about treasure,” he said. “When I’m home in Montana, I don’t read fiction. I read history and scientific works. Archaeology, physics, astronomy: things that are real. But my life there is, like, sedate. When I get out here, my days are filled with rational thought. It’s constant intellectual and physical interaction with my environment: with the weather, with the river, with the rocks. So I’m totally immersed in reality during my daylight hours, and when I go to camp at night, I do something I don’t do at home: I read these novels. I stop in little towns. At the local library, they have this thing they’ve been doing the past few years—in the front of the library, there’s usually free books. I think they get donated? So I get the authors I like, and when I’m done with ’em, I either throw ’em away or burn ’em in a campfire.” He must have noticed a faint twitch of disapproval on my face, because he quickly added, “What I can’t do is take ’em with me after I’m done.”

We both looked over at his canoe, with its tarped mounds, and Conant smiled. He seemed to suggest that he was strategically, not wantonly, overloaded. He had a half-dozen gallon-size jugs onboard, capable of carrying up to 50 pounds of water weight, and he stowed them around the bottom of the hull in varying arrangements as ballast to counteract wave action, having learned from some towboat captains down south that they sometimes used more fuel pushing empty barges than full loads, because of the effort required to hold a steady course. When he was anticipating turbulence, he drank deeply without replenishing to increase his canoe’s buoyancy. He was doing that right now, in fact, because the harbor in the city was likely to present “confused seas—waves coming from one direction and another—and if I’m more buoyant I can rock and roll a lot better.”

It was a delicate calculus—thirst insurance versus maneuverability—especially given that he had long since reached the brackish stage of the river, with salinity increasing by the mile, which ruled out boiling his means of conveyance as a last resort. He said he’d resorted to that option twice while upstate. But an urban environment such as he was now approaching seemed likely to promise spigots or grocery stores, he figured. “I don’t expect to hit anyplace that’s really remote until I get to central New Jersey.”

“I started keeping a regular journal, but I found that I was so tired at the end of the day,” Conant told me. Instead, he took extensive notes on the road atlases he used to navigate.
Conant took extensive notes on the road atlases he used to navigate. (Photo: James Halliday)

I grew up in New Jersey. Not central New Jersey, but I’ve got a lifetime’s experience with the fact that most people from elsewhere don’t much care to parse the regions. It is, of course, the most densely populated state in the country. There is the New York City part of Jersey and the Philadelphia part of Jersey. And the shore, but that’s not what he meant; he said the salt concentration in ocean water activated skin allergies, and was best avoided. The idea that you could lose yourself in the middle—that an accomplished Montana outdoorsman, no less, could manage to conceive of sliding inland on inevitably polluted watercourses and anticipate a feeling of remoteness—was, to this product of Sopranos territory, enchanting. Was it even possible to traverse the state by boat? I’d never considered it. The ever-shrinking woods I used to try to disappear in as a boy, while hoping for absolution from travel soccer, abutted a condominium development called Rio Vista, which was a kind of quintessential Jersey joke: there was no view to speak of, and certainly no river.

Looking back at his atlas and at a tide chart by his side, Conant shifted his focus to the more immediate challenges of an industrial environment: the city and the harbor ahead, where the biggest problem, aside from confused seas, was finding accessible and suitably private campsites. To the extent possible, he preferred not to trespass or to appear “slovenly,” as he put it. “People get offended if you sleep out in the open,” he said. “I can travel at night, if necessary—or, you know what I did once? On the Mississippi, I was coming up to a dam, and these signs that said, ‘Do not go further.’ So I pulled up to this arsenal. You know, ‘Do not enter. U.S. government property.’ I had no choice. I tied myself off to a tree and to a log that was horizontal, and I went to sleep right in the boat. And I actually got shut-eye, too!”

I visited again the next afternoon and found Conant “dreaming,” as he soon put it, amid a spread of cheese and condiments. “If you get thirsty, let me know,” he said. Before long, I noticed him pouring capfuls of Tabasco and sipping soy sauce straight from the bottle—“Energizing the flavor buds,” he explained.

He was eager to apologize for something he’d said the day before, and he hoped that I wasn’t offended. I couldn’t fathom what he was referring to. As I was leaving, he reminded me, he had said that he didn’t care whether or not I managed to publish an article about his voyage. It was a harmless remark—sweet, even. As I understood it, he had meant to emphasize that he valued the companionship and my interest in his adventures more than any esteem publicity might bring him. (“I love telling about my trips,” he’d said.) He was trying to absolve me of any obligation to labor further on his behalf.

Apparently, though, he’d been worrying about it ever since. For one thing, he now explained, it wasn’t true. He recognized having one’s work published as a form of professional success, and he wished to contribute to mine. (“This is your life’s work!”) And then there was the matter of his own manuscripts—two of which, he now said, he was carrying with him on flash drives. “I was going to give you one, but I thought, nah, that’s going over the edge,” he said. “But you know what I can do is, if we develop a certain email rapport, so to speak, I’ll send you a snippet, I guess. Maybe 20 to 30 pages? Something particularly neat that you might like.”

My interest this day was more transactional. Though I had enjoyed hearing his stories maybe as much as he had enjoyed sharing them, I now had some basic logistical questions. “When the time comes,” I began, “is there a way that we can get in touch with you?”

“No,” he said, and chuckled, as though the idea were indeed laughable. “I got a cellphone, but I rarely charge it,” he went on. “You know, on my other trips, I didn’t have one at all.” Whatever the case, he wasn’t interested in using his phone for my convenience. I admit that I was more impressed than annoyed and a little envious of his self-possession.

I was left with my digital recorder and the hope that I might get him on the record addressing anything I thought readers might conceivably want to know. Like, for instance: “When you go on a trip like this, you’re gone for a long time. Do you give up your apartment for the time being? Or your house?”

He laughed again, more nervously this time, and paused. “That’s kind of sensitive,” he said. He paused some more, mumbled about how he supposed it would “get out anyhow,” then took a deep breath and said, “Well, one of the reasons I go on these trips is because I don’t have an apartment.” I’d planned to ask next about how he financed his travel, but he kept going and answered without my prompting. “I was discriminated against in both housing and employment,” he continued. “I was having a rough time. And I managed without going to jail or getting thrown into a mental hospital. Now I’m old enough where I can collect Social Security—and going on a trip like this? It’s cheap. Even though I make very little on Social Security, on a trip like this I can actually save big dollars.” He laughed again. “Like I said, this is much too sensitive. But! It’s the truth.”

Both of his parents were dead. He had a large number of siblings with whom he seemed to be in only sporadic touch. (“That way they don’t worry.”) The lone stabilizing force in his life, as he now talked about it, seemed to be the “unusual” woman he’d met in Livingston the year before he settled across the mountain pass in Bozeman. This was near the start of yet another river trip, from the Yellowstone to the Missouri to the Mississippi: Montana to the Gulf. Her name was Tracy—“And I don’t want to give you her last name,” he said. “We’re not legally affianced or nothing.” He described their relationship as “very strange but constant” and acknowledged that it was difficult to explain, in light of his itinerant ways. “I very close to proposed to her within five minutes,” he said. “And then I was on my way down the river.”

At some point, after I’d lost control of the interrogation and submitted once more to the undammed stream of his consciousness, he launched a torrent of a monologue that began with a smoked sausage he’d bought at a grocery store in Minnesota, five years earlier. “I pickled it like I pickle my other stuff, but unfortunately it had a bug,” he explained. “Many microbes will not live in that acetic acid and salt and garlic, but this particular bacteria thrived in the pickle juice. Anyhow, as I was getting down towards, oh, mid- and southern Missouri, I ate some of that, and I got sick as a dog.”

His sickness coincided with his arrival at a teardrop-shaped island in the Mississippi called Jones Towhead, downriver and around the bend from Chester, Illinois, the commemorative home of Popeye the Sailor. He set up camp in a glade on the northern end, under a light canopy of 80-foot trees. “At the same time, within the nearest surrounding—I think it was 17—counties, in Missouri and Illinois, they had this deluge, just a magnificent rainfall, about five inches of rain that lasted over about two days,” he went on. “And I had dysentery. Not only do you have to evacuate all the time, but I lost my energy completely. And as the river was rising, I had to move my tent and my gear.

”I can, and I will!" Dick Conant kept repeating, on an island in upstate New York, in 2014, of his intention to paddle all the way to Florida.
Conant on an island in upstate New York in 2014 (Photo: Brad Rappleyea)

“So I’d go to sleep and wake up in the morning, and the water would be lapping at my feet, and I’d have to get up and move my tent again. But the dysentery was so bad that I could only move like 20 feet at a time, and I’d collapse. When I say collapse, I mean totally on my face in the mud. Can’t get up. Had to wait another 20 minutes to get enough—I think it’s ATP?—into my muscles to where I could move again.” (ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is a molecule that transports energy within cells.) “It was the most devastating thing. And so that’s what I’d do: I’d get up, move my gear, fall down, wait for it to pass, get up, move my gear. Make about four or five trips, then collapse in my tent again. Drink water, try to stay hydrated, go back to sleep. Wake up, the water would be at my feet again. It was just—the water kept rising.”

He stuck twigs upright in the mud to chart the river’s rate of encroachment. “This went on for about two more days. The river level rose about 20 feet. Finally, I got to the top of the towhead, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, when’s this river gonna stop?’ There was only maybe 18 inches of elevation left.” He looked up, and his heart sank: there was driftwood suspended in branches above his head, evidence that it could get much worse. The river, meanwhile, was delivering not just tree limbs but washing machines and the sides of barns swiftly past him.

“The Mississippi is just—I call it the Behemoth,” he said. “I was lucky that it stopped. Anyhow, I had to stay on that island for about ten days to recuperate. I ran out of water, so I collected rainwater off the roof of my tent, and I boiled some river water.” Boiling the Mississippi was a cumbersome project, involving stages of centrifugal sloshing and straining, to reduce sediment “and heavy metals and other noxious chemicals that cling to the mud.” During his convalescence, he watched the ground beneath the canopy blossom into a fragrant carpet of daisies, and he observed the resumption of barge traffic as the trash flushed out. He felt like Odysseus when he was enticed by the Sirens: “The water is calling me but I should not go.” He forced himself to wait until his appetite had returned, and he tested his strength by hauling ever-larger logs—200 and then 300 pounds apiece—to his bonfire.

“I was scared,” he said. “I had made it through a tremendous challenge, but I just had more respect for the river than I had ever had before. And by the time I got to—oh, what’s the name of that town? General Grant had his headquarters there before he went to Columbus…” He meant Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “I forget the name of it. But I got acquainted with the townspeople, and almost—well, I got acquainted with a young woman, but I didn’t fall in love, let’s just put it that way. I was tempted to. I was so glad to be around a woman. And I think it was the fear of dying that I had gotten on that towhead that made me enjoy this person’s presence. It made me feel alive again.”

It was at this point that what had sounded to me like a survival narrative turned out to be a meditation on the redemptive power of constancy and faith. With his ego and self-confidence restored, he said, he got back on the river—“Told her, ‘I really got to go, I’m not coming back’”—and not long after, during a stopover in the Missouri Bootheel, he received a surprise visit, not for the first time, from Tracy, who was camouflaged in a wig. He had a wistful smile as he recounted the episode and trailed off without mentioning what happened next. “She’s looking to see if I’m healthy and alive,” he added. “I appreciate that. I really do. Nobody else does that.”

A group of teenage boys on dirt bikes had arrived at the beach near Conant’s campsite, and one of them began idly tugging at a set of wheels, for portaging, in the bow of the canoe, while maintaining eye contact with me from a distance of maybe 30 feet, as if to assert his fearlessness. If Conant saw the boy, he didn’t let on. He was lying back again, his tongue energized with the residue of Tabasco and his cheeks flushed with longing. Stung by the poignancy of that nobody-else-does-that remark, I’d hoped to wait until the teens moved on before taking my leave. But daycare pickup loomed. “I wish we could get better acquainted, but time is of the essence,” Conant said, excusing me. “You’re a family man.”

Excerpted from Riverman by Ben McGrath. Copyright © 2022 by Ben McGrath. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Lead Photo: From Dick Conant’s personal collection