Billy Davidson and Dick Conant certainly never crossed paths, though they may have recognized similar traits in each other, both loners riding the tides of wanderlust.
Armchair explorers can now happily sort out that wanderlust in Brandon Pullan’s tale of Davidson, “To Be A Warrior,” recently published by Rocky Mountain Books, and Ben McGrath’s “Riverman,” coming soon from Knopf.
Of course, every story is partially told, as both Conant and Davidson met untimely ends, Davidson among the many islands in Canada’s Inside Passage, where he paddled his tandem-style sea kayak, and Conant in the vast Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, where his cheap plastic canoe was recovered, but not him. Mystery still surrounds the two dead.
For Davidson, kayaking came after establishing himself as a world-class mountaineer, primarily near his home of Calgary, Alberta, in the 1960s and 1970s, although he also scaled the North American Wall of the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Born to troubled parents, he and his siblings grew up at Wood’s Christian School near the Bow River in Calgary. He never saw his mother again after she left him in 1953, when he was six years old.
Nine years later, Davidson moved to finish high school, but it was while still at Wood’s in 1960, “on one of the summer trips to Camp Chief Hector that Billy climbed his first mountain. It would change his life. »
For years he was a regular member of the Calgary Mountain Club, creating new routes, commemorating classic lines and reinforcing the area’s importance for climbing. Eventually he gave up rock climbing for kayaking and also turned to watercolor painting. “With their bright colors and abstract subjects, they were sometimes described as a mixture of the style of Emily Carr with that of Pablo Picasso”, and some of the paintings “were sold at auction and were listed for up to $5,000 “.
Pullan’s story depends both on interviews with Davidson’s climbing and paddling friends, as well as journals and notes left after the explorer’s death in 2002. Pullan also spoke with Davidson’s son , Waverly, and Waverly’s mother, Lori Anderson, although their contact with Davidson was often infrequent.
McGrath met Dick Conant once, in 2014, when Conant paddled past McGrath’s house on the Hudson River in 2014, his canoe “stuffed like the apocalypse with duffle bags, tarps and surplus trash bags of the Army”.
By the time McGrath met him, Conant’s paddling adventures had included trips on the Mississippi, as well as the Missouri and Colorado rivers.
In 1999, the former janitor and Navy veteran “bought a canoe which he launched near the Montana-Wyoming border. Destination: Gulf of Mexico.
Shortly after surviving an early capsize in the Yellowstone River, Conant bivouacked at Livingston, encountering a young woman. “Her name was Tracy,” and Conant mentioned her to almost everyone he met throughout his career.
However, McGrath also builds his narrative on interviews with people Conant encountered during his adventures, as well as the paddler’s journals and notes. Both Conant and Davidson kept many notes and diaries, although due to their travels many were also lost, washed away by weather and currents.
Both Davidson and Conant watched civilization recede as they moved their boats through choppy waters and summoned echoes of other modern wanderers – think Chris McCandless or Evertt Ruess – Pullan and McGrath both reveal some of the mermaid songs that pulled Billy Davidson and Dick Conant over the edge.