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The Survival of the Bark Canoe
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The Survival of the Bark Canoe

4.05 of 5 stars 4.05  ·  rating details  ·  564 ratings  ·  44 reviews
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 squar ...more
Paperback, 160 pages
Published May 1st 1982 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published November 24th 1975)
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Only McPhee could make bark canoes so interesting. Ask me what a gunwale is. I now know.

The beginning of this short book is about Henri Vaillancourt, a 20-something in New Hampshire who is building a business of custom-building bark canoes. His main source is a book published in 1964, Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Most of the contents of this book were put together by Edwin Tappan Adney, who spent much of his 19th/20th century life documenting these boats with their native builder
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 ...more
Matt Messinger
McPhee is an wonderful,writer. He can imbue an esoteric topic -- a man whose dedicated his life to the handmade creation of birch bark canoes -- with the universal. As he does in this book. In his profile of Henri Villaincourt McPhee delves into the details of his life: his living with his parents, his travels deep into the NH woods to identify birch trees perfect for his canoes, his pursuit of seeing every birch bark canoe in existence, and his extreme confidence in the quality of his canoes, s ...more
John McPhee is the least painful way I know of to feel smarter. You learn so much about random stuff from him and it's enjoyable.
I am now an expert in birch bark canoes. Ask me anything.
If it isn't obvious, McPhee has rapidly become one of my favorite non-fiction authors. I am increasingly fascinated with the various ways he constructs the history of each of his subjects. The subject of this particular book is a prickly one, and McPhee places himself in the way of a very uncomfortable journey the better to understand and experience the passion (or mania) of the central character. What engaged me most is the reminder that it is always possible to be so captivated by something (i ...more
McPhee is part fly-on-the-wall, part participant, part historian, always the multifaceted storyteller. Interested in how birch canoes are made? I wasn't either. Doesn't matter; McPhee will make you so curious you'll want to head into the Maine woods and start looking for the perfect tree.
Michael Powell
Roger Ebert says that it is not what a movie is about that makes it "good" (or not) it is how the movie is about what the movie is about.

In the same way a great writer can take a subject in which you have no interest and write a compelling book about that subject.

This is such a book.

about the author:
"John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the
Great book that details one of the few remaining bark canoe builders. Although first published in 1975, the year I was born, the history and techniques of bark canoe building are still relevant. I hope that much has changed since then and the art and skill of bark canoe building are alive and well.

McPhee is definitely no greenhorn when it comes to canoeing. He has to instruct the guy that builds the canoes how to paddle it. Overall a very humorous and comprehensive character sketch of the canoe
Ray Zimmerman
This book describes two canoe trips on which McPhee traveled, one of them with a man who was still making birch bark canoes at the time. He also describes the man and the manufacture of the canoes, the selection of trees for bark, and the tools used in the process. A fascinating read.
If I were hosting a dinner party and could invite anyone living or dead, John McPhee would be on my top ten for sure. He has the ability to make seemingly mundane subjects fascinating and he's done just that with this book. A short, quick read from the master!
This is 1/3 a delightful dip into the world of someone obsessed with their craft, 1/3 a discussion on the history and technique of Native American canoes (super cool, actually), 1/3 outdoor travel tale. Fantastic!

Also fairly short and to the point.
Bruce Cook
McPhee shows us the world through his unique and interesting lens again in this short book that centers around the timeless North American craft of making bark canoes. The book focuses around Henry Vaillancourt, who is a young entrepreneur who crafts birch bark canoes with minimal and somewhat primitive tools from scratch.The young man is an interesting object to focus your lens on, but McPhee dazzles his readers again with long information dumps that consistently keep you turning the pages. The ...more
Ronald Wise
The author makes contact with New Hampshire canoe enthusiast Henri Villaincourt and is invited to join Villaincourt and three others on a canoe trip through the woods of Maine. There are diagrams and photographs to help the reader learn about the craft of building canoes as the Native American's of the area did for centuries. The adventure aspects of the book were interesting, especially in light of the personal quirks displayed by Villaincourt. By following their course on Wikimapia, I also lea ...more
This is one of the most interesting books I've ever read.McPhee explains the art of making canoes so easily. It is very descriptive and makes sense. 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 ...more
I have just re-read this book, in anticipation of a 100 mile journey on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway coming up in a month or so. I don't remember a finer, more enjoyable read. This book is slim, but perfect. It has history, unique characters, and an honesty about the conflicts and follies of group travel that is wincing in its honesty. Part of the story occurrs where we will go, and that is so tantalizing right now, as winter is fades and spring is harrowing in its brutal carnage around here ...more
Another books about McPhee's obsession with Maine, but crossed with one of the other McPhee sub-genres - the one where he goes on trips with people through Nature.

This one was good. It was almost like an expanded version of the Gibbons story in Hovings - but with more about the boat. And seriously, this one had illustrations (still no maps though)! It didn't suffer from some of the McPhee-jingo-ism issues becuase when he talks about outerwales of a canoe, he explains what it is.

It was no Pine Ba
Read this long, long ago, serialized in the New Yorker, I think. Great book.
If you have someone in your life who carries a canoe, you'll probably learn a few things about him or her by reading this book. McPhee's account of a bark canoe trip is a simple story about sustaining traditions of craftspersonship in an era of mass production. But the real stars of the book are the bark canoes, created from sunshine and rain, crafted by hand in the woods with hand tools and traditional knowledge, ultralight and easy to portage and repair, and good for all kinds of weather. If y ...more
Quite interesting.
"Travel by canoe is not a necessity, and will nevermore be the most efficient way to get from one region to another, or even from one lake to another--anywhere. A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion of the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself; and what you take along depends on what you can afford (Henri could not afford to buy beef jerky, so he had to make it) and on how you see yourself in ...more
Eric Weisenhorn
I liked this book and having not previously read John McPhee was really enthralled with the writing style. This is non-fiction in a very entertaining and readable format. McPhee brings a lot of interesting facts about a subject that one would not expect to find particularly enthralling and a peculiar main character and modern day artist together in an interesting history of birch bark canoe construction. This is a good read and you come away feeling just a little bit smarter than you did before.
In The Survival of the Bark Canoe McPhee follows an obsessive man and an artist, Henri Vaillancourt, into the wilds of Maine in birchbark canoes Vaillancourt has made. The first section of the book is about the making of canoes and the artist's craft. The second is about the use of those canoes in a difficult journey with a difficult man. The story, and the accompanying photos and illustrations made me want a birchbark canoe. What a thing of function and beauty.
As always, McPhee's prose is meticulously sparse. He writes beautifully, and his word choice is spot-on. But his storytelling struggles a bit in this book, especially in the earlier chapters. One section that details the architecture of a birch bark canoe is numbingly dense. The tensions between himself and his companions during a 150-mile canoe paddle are fascinating.
Matt Johnson
McPhee has an amazingly catchy way of narrating his time with a French-American bark canoe craftsman. He weaves together a story of craft, backwoods canoeing and the history of Northern Native American and early Colonial canoeing effortlessly in a nostalgic, humorous, and almost mournful way. This is a great short read about the last keepers of a dying art.
brian dean
John McPhee offers an interesting description of one of the few birch bark canoe makers of his era. The man was an excellent builder but his skill was balanced out by his inexperience in actual canoe-tripping.

Having read the book, I feel very nearly capable of making birch-bark canoe myself now. I only need a crooked knife.
John McPhee has the enormous gift of making anything interesting, even if it's something that you don't think will interest you. He tells the stories of talented and eccentric people, and pretty soon you are swept into his adventures. I like canoes and canoeing, so this was particularly fun to read.
Nancy McClure
Sep 26, 2008 Nancy McClure rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: craftspeople, historians, outdoorsy folk
Recommended to Nancy by: Scott (to persuade me to canoe the 10000 lakes of Minnesota)
I love a 'how-to' wrapped in a story, and while I can't say that I now know how to build a hand carved birch bark canoe, I have an appreciation for those who do. And a desire to take one down a wide, northern river (with a good tailwind) as long as there are no leeches. Leeches. That's right, LEECHES.
I first read this in high school. A favorite teacher loaned me his copy - which was complete with little flattened Mosquitos on the pages, because he had read it whilst camping.
John McPhee could make a description of watching paint dry fascinating. So he knocks it out of the park, with this quirky subject.
Barb Hanahan
The book was found at the Newberry Library book fair. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading about something I had never given any thought to. It was not surprising that I liked it as well as I did as so much of the natural world is incorporated into building, paddling and exploring.
I had some trouble following the sections on canoe craftsmanship (maybe this was my fault) but I loved the story and the characters. I was going to write that this makes it sort of a backwards McPhee book but, truth be told, this is how I end up feeling about them more often than not.
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The P ...more
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