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The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John…

The Survival of the Bark Canoe

by John McPhee

Other authors: Tappan Adney (Illustrator)

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Henri Vaillancourt builds birch bark canoes. He taught himself how to do it and now creates them in an effort to prevent the skill from dying out. Contrary to what one might think, these canoes are incredibly strong. As a demonstration, Vaillancourt will drive his fist as hard as he can into the skin of one, which remains unaffected. The bark of the white birch tree is strong, resilient and waterproof. He splits all the wood for the frames — split wood is stronger and more flexible than cut wood. But Vaillancourt is perfectly content to let the myth of the fragile bark canoe continue. He knows they would survive white water — the Indians used them under all sorts of conditions, including the ocean — but he doesn’t trust his customers. Any canoe can be damaged, and he knows bark canoes are too rare to risk being destroyed. After all, he can only build about eight a year.

Only John McPhee could write about Henri and the canoe. All of McPhee’s books and articles are classics, and this one is no exception. McPhee describes, in loving detail, the entire process of building one of these canoes, from the splitting of the tree for the thwarts and ribs, to laying on the birch bark. Henri never uses power tools. Indeed, all he needs are an axe, an awl, and a crooked knife. Even the paddles he carves himself. McPhee, Vaillancourt and a couple of friends take a trip into the wilds of Maine, which have remained almost unchanged since Thoreau wrote about them more than a hundred years ago. It’s here that Vaillancourt finds his birch trees. All of them are steeped in Thoreau although Vaillancourt sneers at his impracticality, arguing that you can use nature without destroying it, and that Thoreau could travel in a bark canoe, yet when asked to describe how it was constructed could not. That Thoreau set several forest fires accidentally and walked away from them does not sit well with Vaillancourt either.

Sleeping at night in the Maine woods can only be described as “insectile.” While mosquitoes cannot make it through the screens on the tents, no-see-ums can. “They home on flesh. They cover the hands, the arms, the neck, the face. Like an acid, they eat skin. They are not ubiquitous, but they have been with us now for two nights in a row. At 3 A. M., I got up and . . . went into the water like a fly-crazed moose. I stayed in the lake in the dark for an hour . . . only the nose out — dozing.” Thoreau slept in the smoke from a fire covered with wet logs in a vain attempt to repel the insects. The Indians would never have made a warm weather camping trip. They weren’t fools. The tribes who lived there left during the summer months. They went, much like the Bushes, to the coast and Kennebunkport.

( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
boats, canoe, nature, history, Maine, ( )
  SFoxx | Dec 24, 2010 |
A documentary work, McPhee's book gives equal weight to the canoe maker and to his art. The art was fascinating, the artist less so. McPhee enjoys a good trek and this no exception. We are witness to the discord of the trekkers. ( )
  corrmorr | Sep 20, 2009 |
John McPhee's story of the almost-lost-art of making canoes by hand, with basic tools and with natural materials is a delightful read. I rank it there with Union Bay, a great book for a naturalist's collection.
  rjstewart30 | Apr 19, 2008 |
Showing 4 of 4
added by doomjesse | editKirkus (Nov 1, 1975)

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John McPheeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Adney, TappanIllustratorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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The Survival of the Bark Canoe was indeed written by John A. McPhee, but not by the more well known author of the same name. Because of the inclusion of the middle initial "A", this book is associated with the less well-known and incorrect author. If your book appears on this page: using the author name "John McPhee" without the middle initial will enable your book to be associated with other copies of the same work and other works by the same author.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0374516936, Paperback)

In an age of mass-produced and disposable objects, traditional crafts are becoming extinct, and appreciation for craftsmanship has become a hobby for the wealthy dilettante. But here and there, a few stalwart individuals carry on the old traditions. Henri Vaillancourt of Greenville, New Hampshire is in large part responsible for the continuing survival of the birch bark canoe. McPhee tells the story not only of Vaillancourt and his work, but of the canoe's role in American history. Many McPhee fans consider this lovely and lucid book one of his finest works.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:06 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In Greenville, New Hampshire, a small town in the southern part of the state, Henri Vaillancourt makes birch-bark canoes in the same manner and with the same tools that the Indians used. The Survival of the Bark Canoe is the story of this ancient craft and of a 150-mile trip through the Maine woods in those graceful survivors of a prehistoric technology. It is a book squarely in the tradition of one written by the first tourist in these woods, Henry David Thoreau, whose The Maine Woods recounts similar journeys in similar vessel. As McPhee describes the expedition he made with Vaillancourt, he also traces the evolution of the bark canoe, from its beginnings through the development of the huge canoes used by the fur traders of the Canadian North Woods, where the bark canoe played the key role in opening up the wilderness. He discusses as well the differing types of bark canoes, whose construction varied from tribe to tribe, according to custom and available materials. In a style as pure and as effortless as the waters of Maine and the glide of a canoe, John McPhee has written one of his most fascinating books, one in which his talents as a journalist are on brilliant display.… (more)

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