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The Survival of the Bark Canoe

4.10  ·  Rating Details  ·  683 Ratings  ·  48 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 January 1st 1975)
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Community Reviews

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Dree
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
...more
Heather
Nov 30, 2007 Heather rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2007
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.
Eric_W
Sep 29, 2009 Eric_W rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography-memoir
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
Jan 11, 2015 Matt Messinger rated it really liked it
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
Anna
Jul 23, 2014 Anna rated it really liked it
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
Kerri
Jul 14, 2011 Kerri rated it it was amazing
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.
Kate
"In Greenville, New Hampshire, Henri Vaillancourt makes birch bark canoes in the same manner and with the same tools that the Indians used. He sews them and lashes them with split roots of spruce or white pine. No nails, screws or rivets mar their authenticity. For Vaillancourt, canoe making is an art to which he has dedicated his life.

"In one of Vaillancourt's canoes, the builder, John McPhee and some friends travel 150 miles into the Maine woods. Like Henry David Thoreau who recounts similar j
...more
Michael Powell
Mar 21, 2011 Michael Powell rated it really liked it
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
...more
Matthew
Feb 08, 2012 Matthew rated it really liked it
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
...more
Ray Zimmerman
Jul 20, 2014 Ray Zimmerman rated it it was amazing
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.
Meghan
May 16, 2014 Meghan rated it really liked it
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!
Keegan
Oct 27, 2014 Keegan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: good-nonfiction
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.
Tom Baker
Jun 07, 2015 Tom Baker rated it it was amazing
Clear and precise, McPhee never disappoints. The primary part of this book was the wilderness canoe trip. It was humorous in that Henri, the maker of beautiful birch bark canoes. Was a total novice in the wilderness and was totally self centered, egotistical and a bully. But what a rare thing he did as craftsman of authentic canoes.
Bruce Cook
Dec 09, 2013 Bruce Cook rated it it was amazing
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
Ben
Sep 15, 2013 Ben rated it it was amazing
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
Tom
Apr 07, 2009 Tom rated it it was amazing
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
Aaron Dobler
May 30, 2016 Aaron Dobler rated it it was amazing
McPhee is an amazing writer, but his real talent is being sincerely interested in his subjects to the point that it becomes infectious.
James
Jul 05, 2009 James rated it really liked it
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
...more
Lisa
Aug 29, 2015 Lisa rated it it was amazing
Excellent book! Anyone with an interest in canoes and nature would thoroughly enjoy this book.
Milt
Jul 30, 2016 Milt rated it it was amazing
Shelves: owned
so glad I read this, especially after having donated
my 16' Grumman. I would have gone foolish with it!
Paulina
Sep 03, 2014 Paulina rated it liked it
Quite interesting.
Evan
"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
Jan 29, 2012 Eric Weisenhorn rated it liked it
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.
Tycoon
Aug 31, 2015 Tycoon rated it liked it
The focus was a bit too narrow for my taste. I like McPhee when he ranges broadly and meets a multitude of eccentrics.
Tim
Nov 24, 2011 Tim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Glenn
Jan 16, 2011 Glenn rated it it was ok
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
Sep 04, 2013 Matt Johnson rated it really liked it
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
Jun 12, 2012 brian dean rated it really liked it
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.
Mary
Jan 18, 2015 Mary rated it really liked it
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.
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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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