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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A rare encounter at the water’s edge

A black and brown raptor with what seemed like a three foot wing span soared over our heads no more than a dozen feet up, before alighting on an angled tree trunk right on the water’s edge. We paddled closer to shore to where the bird alighted than raised our oars and bobbed in our double kayak on 120 acre Mongaup Pond,a lobular shaped lake, encircled by a maple-beech-birch forest in the western Catskills of New York. The bird stood still, bright yellow feet and jet black talons gripping the tilting bark. It looked familiar but alien at the same time. I knew what it was not but could not identify to my satisfaction what it was.

http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/mongaup-pond-campground-livingston-manor?select=rjCVt5xyfRQWb9Zos-Lmwg

Mongaup Pond, Livington Manor, NY

I can identify most of the fairly common birds I see,  a skill that began with a mandatory assignment years ago in my high school zoology course. I know to zone in on the details of the plumage, the beak and feet colors, the size, any unusual markings seen during flight or when the bird flashes its tail feathers. I look for any marking on the bird’s nape, or crown or rump. I try to remember the shape of its beak as well, pointy, like a spear, or stout and angular, like an anvil.

Something seemed familiar about this raptor, like we had met before. I should know you, I thought, like when you meet someone you think you recognize but can’t quite place. Maybe we went to school together once long ago, or lived in the same neighborhood?  The avian body shape perched in front of me now looked like one I should know, with those distinctive fearsome grasping toes and talons and that flesh ripping beak that looked as strong as iron.

My son and I had been kayaking around the lake for an hour or so and just paddled nearby to the area we camped at many years ago, when he was quite young. I pointed out where we had pitched our tent, made our campfire, tied up our row boat. His memories of those times are faint. I looked at my son now in the kayak, in his teens, and could imagine him back at the campsite more than a decade ago. When I looked at that spot, I saw a past more meaningful than a mere snapshot or even a video clip of that time. What I can picture of the past on that lakefront campsite is so meaningful because it is a page, maybe just a sentence, in a book that is still being written even as we rowed away. I can pair his toddler face and toddler gait then with his teenage loping walk and smile of today. There is always a synergy of the past and the present, not always apparent but always there. The boy on that sloping shore trying to skip rocks years ago is now the young man in the front of our boat, the one who first spotted the soaring bird overhead.

I knew the bird was too large and bulky to be any raptor I had seen in this area. It was not a diving double crested cormorant and too stocky and muscled to be a gangly turkey vulture. I know that bald eagles frequent Mongaup Pond, and I have seen them before, huge wing span, soaring high, bright white head and tail visible even from a distance, such a stark contrast to their homogeneous brown bodies.

And than I knew. I knew this mystery bird, flying awkwardly, was indeed a juvenile bald eagle, not yet bearing the plumage of an adult. It looks like a bald eagle in body type and shape, and at the same time looks nothing like a bald eagle. No white head. No yellow beak, perched calmly as two paddlers approach within fifteen feet. Don’t you know you should not trust us? Fly away.

The child and the adult morphed into one unified image. “The Child is father of the Man”, wrote William Wordsworth in his poem, My Heart Leaps Up. The one gives rise to the other, inexorably bound, different but the same. This young hunting bird is a bald eagle sure enough, even without the distinctive markings. Once I visualized the adult, I could identify his offspring too.

Juveniles often do not resemble their adult phase. A swimming tadpole in no way resembles a hopping frog nor does a crawling caterpillar resemble a butterfly. Even a baby robin has a speckled breast and not a reddish orange breast. And the idea of change is common throughout nature. We accept that an ice cube or steam are just different phases of the same substance. Water is transformed as it goes through each change. In chemistry terms, a phase change results from exposing a substance to an extreme, usually either cold or heat. But in the animate world, time precipitates the change. With time a seed in the dirt will nearly disintegrate before it begins to sprout. The sun will rise and set about a dozen times whilst the caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly. And the full moon will appear and vanish about a dozen times until a new born human will take his first steps.

I was not shocked to realize the bird before me did so not resemble an adult eagle. But I was shocked to be only a kayak’s length away, knowing this chance occurrence will not come my way again. And in that moment, the young and old were one, and it was as if I was in the presence of an adult bald eagle in all its majesty. I stared at the juvenile but saw the adult and stared at the young adult in front of me and saw the child.

The young eagle did eventually unfurl it wings and took flight, creating audible ‘thwaps’ of air with each powerful downstroke. It flew low over the lake than slowly gained height and headed away to the other side of the lake out of our range of vision. High above tree line we noticed an adult eagle soaring and could just make out the white head. We knew what we had just shared was one of those rare moments in nature where you are gifted with the opportunity to see something unusual, to learn a little more about the inner workings of the natural world and at the same time given a chance to learn so much more about that most complex phase change of all, life itself.

My Heart Leaps Up
by William Wordsworth, 1770-1850

My heart leaps up when I behold 
   A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began; 
So is it now I am a man; 
So be it when I shall grow old, 
   Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

(poets.org)

Howard E. Friedman

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