By Lenny Ackerman
While on a recent fishing trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains, I finished reading “Riverman” by Ben McGrath. On the surface it is a biography, but it is also a mystery, and at the heart of it, the author’s own story within the story. McGrath, a young man from the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York and a writer for the New Yorker, describes meeting Dick Conant, a Hudson River canoeist traveling south, and how shortly afterward, he learns of Conant’s untimely and mysterious death. What started as a casual meet up for the author turns into an obsessive search for information, to understand the canoeist’s eccentric, solitary, wildly adventurous life.
McGrath finds a trove of Conant’s writings, photographs and diary entries detailing a lifetime of river travel in a storage locker in Bozeman, Montana. These documents create a trail for the author to follow as he sets out to find the truth behind them and about Conant himself. In doing so the story becomes one as much about the author as the adventurer, as McGrath travels the country, seeking the people and places touched by Conant in his travels and studying the impressions left behind. He learns that Conant was an elusive, larger than life character who measured his days by distances traveled on the water, and who was completely disconnected from the modern, digital world. The truth of Conant’s adventures varied from stopover to stopover and McGrath concludes there may have been a great deal of fiction in the storage locker writings. Conant’s mysterious and unsolved death is the ultimate unanswered question in the book since no body was ever found, only his canoe, with some scraps of paper, including one with the author’s name and phone number. In truth, Dick Conant was many people – he had a vivid, imaginary love life, but many real friends that he made along the way –many of them like him, loners and forgotten by family.
I began reading “Riverman” on my trip from New York to the High Sierras in California. Little did I know when I started the book that I was traveling to a place very much like those the author found in his quest to unravel the mystery of Conant’s life and death. Downieville, the County Center of the Sierras, is remote and in many ways like a step back in time. I envisioned running the rapids, like Conant, in a pontoon boat down the Yuba or Big Truckee River, with stops in small towns of bygone days, meeting people along the way. “Riverman” leaves the reader moved, and longing for a wilderness adventure.