November 29, 2014, I received a phone call from an officer of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission named John Beardsley.
He was investigating a missing boater, he said, and explained that some duck hunters had found a canoe and that my phone number had turned up among the gear in the boat.
It had come practically from Canada, I explained—from Plattsburgh, New York, twenty miles south of the border.
Conant had paddled past my house, on the Hudson River a dozen miles above Manhattan, on Labor Day morning.
Righting the boat without severing the ropes was impossible.
Finding no body, Sanders called 911, loaded what bags he could onto his skiff, and towed the canoe inland, via a narrow canal, passing the rickety docks and large oyster middens of a shellfishing operation called Frog Island.
I have been denied what our men are supposed to do.
The nation’s largest Coast Guard facility is in the nearest town, Elizabeth City; it dispatched a boat, a plane, and, eventually, a helicopter to aid in the search.
I mentioned that he had e-mailed me a month or so earlier, in late October, and sounded healthy and happy, in spite of the fact that waves had drowned his laptop. Conant was a Navy veteran, and he suffered from gout and high blood pressure. The father called his friend Grover Sanders, who had been hunting ducks nearby.
He was at a public library in Delaware City, Delaware, “and preparing for the next leg across Chesapeake Bay,” he wrote. Sanders, a stout soybean farmer who hadn’t trimmed his beard in three and a half years, drove his skiff out to have a look.
He had a rust-colored beard, with patches of white, and his face was as red as a boiled lobster shell—a riparian Santa. His handshake offered the firmest grip I’ve ever felt. The canoe had been spotted floating upside down near the mouth of Big Flatty Creek, by a father who was fishing with his young boy and feared what they might discover if they drew their boat any closer.
On the phone, I explained to Officer Beardsley that I was a journalist, and that I had written a short article (in this magazine) about Conant’s ambitious voyage. Big Flatty discharges into the not so flat brackish waters of Albemarle Sound, about twenty miles west of the Outer Banks.
As I was about to take my toddler son kayaking, a neighbor called out that there was a man in his house I might want to meet.