Riverman by Ben McGrath

A while back ppine put up a post about the book “The Twenty Ninth Day”, a decent read by the way, but it has me thinking that perhaps it would be of interest to this community to mention another fairly recent book that involves canoeing – Riverman by Ben McGrath.

It is a book about a fellow named Dick Conant who spent decades doing what most of us would consider epic long-distance paddling trips on American waters. He was no Verlan Kruger. He was no racer and had his sights set on no records. He didn’t have anything to prove. He was a guy who decided to quit his job and go paddling – and ended up, for example, going down the Yellowstone River to the Missouri to the Mississippi to New Orleans. He kept scrupulous notes and was a gregarious fellow who made friends wherever he went. He got into the habit of paddling on before rifts developed in those friendships. As a consequence he had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of acquaintances who’s lives he affected and who’s addresses he kept and who he made contact with when he was again in their area. . And he sparked memories of dreams of adventure in those he met. He was to adventure as Don Quixote was to chivalry. One of those acquaintances was a writer for the New Yorker who wrote the book.

He was a denizen of “The State of Riverbank USA”, “a cultural jurisdiction independent of any borders drawn on maps populated by ne’re-do-wells and eccentrics, such as might have entertained Mark Twain’s readers fifty years ago” - or perhaps Steinbeck’s community of Cannery Row…

I strongly suspect many here have some familiarity with this “quasi-anarchistic commonwealth” and might enjoy reading something about a traveler through the land “between the rail-road tracks and the water’s edge on a no-man’s-land of willow and cottonwood, of weed-patch, sand-bar, and mud flat.”

This is different kind of adventure story from any I’ve yet encountered. Perhaps others here will get a kick out of it too.


Good book. Ben does a good job with the story. He also has a piece in New Yorker about two paddlers who paddled all the water in Central Park.

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