A Tale of Two Paddlers

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A lone canoeist in the morning mist (H. Friedman 2015)

Last week two dedicated freshwater paddlers both made the national news. Although the arc of each of their lives differed greatly, their dedication and attachment to the outdoors and to paddling its rivers, lakes and byways was one thing they shared in common. Unfortunately, their deaths on the water was also their final point in common too.

Douglas Tompkins, 72, the founder of the international apparel company the North Face, a kayaker and adventurer, a land conservationist and a multi millionaire, died of hypothermia after his tandem kayak capsized in cold waters in General Carrerra Lake in Chile where he had been on a multi day expedition with friends, including fellow adventurer and outdoor apparel founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. The lake is the second largest in South America. Tompkins’ kayak capsized when water conditions became rough. He was in the water reportedly for two hours until rescued by the Chilean Navy. He died in hospital. The other members of his expedition survived. This story was widely reported in major news publications around the world.

Less widely reported, in fact only reported in the weekly U.S. magazine The New Yorker, as far as I know, was the presumed death of another adventurer and truly dedicated paddler, Dick Conant. Spotted by a duck hunter, his  overturned plastic canoe was abandoned along the shore of the Big Flatty Creek in North Carolina several weeks ago with all of Mr. Conant’s possessions, leading authorities to conclude that the paddler had died although  his body has not been found. In an article published last week in the magazine called “The Wayfarer, A solitary canoeist meets his fate” New Yorker staff writer Ben McGrath introduces us to a man of sparse financial means who has spent the past number of years paddling his plastic canoe on rivers covering the length and breadth of the eastern United States, mostly camping out but occasionally accepting the kindnesses of strangers. His home base for several years had been a makeshift campsite in a swampy area in Bozeman, Montana, until the camp site was burned in what Conant suspected was arson.

Mr. McGrath  met Mr. Conant by happenstance along the shore of the Hudson River where the canoeist was on a journey toward the Florida panhandle and interviewed him at length. In fact, one can even hear the iconoclastic Mr. Conant speaking in a New Yorker podcast based on the magazine article. Mr. Conant, who was about 64 years old,  had been a class president and graduated near the top of his high school class  in Pearl River, New York in the 1960s, according to the article. Conant, who was not in regular contact with any of his siblings, had received a scholarship to attend SUNY Albany where he studied art and played varsity soccer.  He did not graduate due to academic issues and possibly the beginning of some psychiatric issues, specifically paranoia. He received an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1989.

But where Mr. Conant did not complete college and went on to drift through a series of jobs working variously at a hospital or library,  Mr. Tompkins who did not even complete his private high school  succeeded in building a small outdoors apparel store in San Francisco in 1966 into a multi million dollar international adventure clothing empire. And after he sold his multi million dollar share of that business, he reinvented him self again as a land conservationist in Chile and Argentina.

At around age 43, Mr. Conant began to re-make his life into that of a near full time adventurer and a writer, keeping meticulous journal entries for his various river trips each of which lasted many months. Indeed, Mr. Conant described himself as a “canoeist who writes”, Mr. McGrath reports. But where Mr. Tompkins and his colleagues had access to the latest kayaking boats and gear, Mr. Conant began his last journey in a $300 14-foot Coleman plastic ‘Scanoe’ he bought at a sporting goods store near his put-in.  And he packed as much as he could into that boat stuffing canvas duffle bags and plastic sacks and covering them with tarps.

It is ironic that Mr. Conant is exactly the kind of person Mr. Tompkins would have wanted as a North Face customer, if only Conant had any disposable income to buy a decent rain slicker or warm winter jacket. Moreover, while North Face and other gear companies tend to glorify the outdoors life as a superior liberating and natural one, Dick Conant flatly rejected that notion. He stated emphatically that he was not heading out to spend months paddling his way around the country to ‘find himself’, but to see interesting things and meet interesting people. In in a touching moment recorded by Mr. McGrath, Conant volunteers that he would much rather be living in a home with a wife, had his life  worked out that way.

But it didn’t. And instead of sulk about Mr. Conant set out under his own power to truly be the captain of his ship. Thanks to Mr. McGrath’s timely and excellent reporting and writing in The New Yorker, the public now knows about the extraordinary life and perseverance of Dick Conant.  At a time when we pause to note the tragic and untimely loss of Doug Tompkins, adventurer, entrepreneur, extremely successful business man, land owner and conservationist, a man with good and influential friends, a wife and  loving children and a man whose obituary was printed around the globe, we should also take a moment to remember and appreciate the equally untimely and tragic loss of Dick Conant, “a canoeist who writes.”

Howard E. Friedman

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