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.
It is 8:00am July 3, 2022. Patti and I are in Maine at our cottage in Kennebunk. Next week I am off to my camp for a few days of undisturbed reading and of course fishing with Andy and Greg on East Grand Lake. This morning I take my usual drive along the ocean, Route 9 to Cape Porpoise, where I first stop to buy my coffee and New York Times. Then, it is on to my bench at the fishing dock on the Point overlooking the harbor and the inlet where the fishing boats are moored. The cashier at Bradfords is decked out in his Boston Red Socks hat and a red, white and blue flag tie. He is scowling. The man ahead of me helpfully reminds the cashier that today is a holiday and he should be smiling. With that the cashier laughs and his lips curl as he is about to say something but glancing at the long line of people he decides to keep his mouth shut. I sip away at my coffee. The early morning rush of weekenders and cyclists are here, fueling up, buying lunch and iced coffees to take down to the beach. I pick up a paper and see the newspaper rack is low, which may be a result of the reduced volume of papers delivered each day. Seems only half of what it was last year? The papers on offer still represent a relatively wide range geographically, from Boston to Portland to New York, as well as a local weekly with mostly real estate ads.
I drive the short distance to my bench on the waterfront and sigh with contentment in my solitude. I don’t feel like a conversation before I am fully caffeinated. The parking lot is empty of fishermen–unusual except today is Sunday, the day before the holiday, and the lobsters have a day off before they succumb. The wind is making my newspaper reading difficult, so I take a walk out to the dock. There are a couple of locals working the repair of the lift for a heavy catch like a tuna. The large dog in the fisherman’s truck barks at me then realizes it’s a day off and he calms down. I see among the strollers coming down the road a familiar character from last summer: the mysterious older woman who lives in the large house on the water. She is wearing a long raincoat and she makes her way up to the highest rock to scan the horizon for ships. There are none coming in and she walks back, down the road, brushing her fingers along the flowering bushes as she passes by. I think of approaching her but I recall last year she was abrupt with me when I tried to engage her. A group of cyclists stream by slowly, looking around – probably for a public restroom, of which there are none, except in the restaurants and they are not open yet.
The boats are like bowling pins in the harbor. The low tide makes them stand out as if on stilts. Off in the distance waves break. A single sailboat is navigating cautiously. With the tide out, Cape Porpoise is not safe sailing.
It is a glorious morning. I decide to take the top off the Bronco for the ride to our cottage. I try a new route over the backroads to Kennebunk along the ocean. There are signs offering handmade deck chairs and quilts. I would like to stop but I know I will get into a conversation that will result in the purchase of something I don’t need. I am happy and looking forward to going grocery shopping with Patti before lunch. I will email my daughters Kara and Brooke to check in. July 4th is very special to all of us as it was our anniversary – their late mother’s and mine. This year would have been our 60th.
Growing up in upstate New York in the 1950s, what I remember most clearly about Father’s Day are the homemade gifts that we worked on for weeks in advance in shop class, before school closed for the summer. One year I labored over the construction of a tie rack, designed like a cowboy holding a long stick, over which the ties would drape in a row. Like my father even wore ties? Anyway, that was the task for all of us kids, to come up with something that showed great effort for our fathers. By the time I was in high school, shop class long behind me, my mother would choose a Father’s Day gift from the family. Despite her frugality, a week before Father’s Day my mother and I would take the bus downtown to buy dad a gift—usually something he could wear to work, like winter gloves or a flannel shirt—all on sale during the summer. Afterward, we would walk over to dad’s parking lot and wait for him to close up. Then we would all ride home together, his present hidden in mom’s shopping bag.
My mother’s gift to my dad on Father’s Day was to cook his favorite meal for dinner- beef brisket with sides of baked potatoes and roasted carrots, followed by chocolate cake. Before sitting down to eat, my dad downed a shot of whiskey. Then he dug into mom’s dinner like it was his last supper. No restaurant could offer the same level of satisfaction and happiness as his favorite meal homecooked by my mom. Whether the children attended this sumptuous meal on Father’s Day was beside the point with dad. My sister usually found a reason to drop off a present and skipped out on the dinner. My brother always seemed to be somewhere else—college, law school or selling something. With mom in the kitchen, I was usually my dad’s sole companion and of course I watched what I said and how I responded to any questions he threw at me. “Yes, school was fine.” “No I was not looking forward to summer because I am not going to camp.” That one was my attempt to get him to agree with mom that I have two weeks away at Camp Seneca. Usually between the first and second helping dad would be amenable to discussing the camp request which usually was about the cost.
During my teens dad wanted me working the parking lot during the summer to cut down on his payroll. I learned my negotiating skills by trading off hours at the lot for two weeks at Camp Seneca. I was being paid, ha ha, and the salary was to be applied to camp fees. Years later, when I got married and headed to law school, my mother presented me with a passbook to a savings account in my name with the notation, “Parking Lot Money.” My gosh my dad had kept his word. I think there was $2,500 in that account. My folks were real savers. I can almost hear my folks today, seeing the presents kids lavish on their father for Father’s Day: “Save for a rainy day, Lenny.”