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The Survival of the Bark Canoe

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  898 ratings  ·  66 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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4.14  · 
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 ·  898 ratings  ·  66 reviews

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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
Jul 31, 2007 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.
Nov 29, 2008 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
Sep 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Thoreau wrote in The Maine Woods that the making of birch bark canoes “will ere long, perhaps, be ranked among the lost arts.” And yet we have in John McPhee’s 1975 book, as promised, the tale of its unlikely survival in the gifted hands of young Henri Vaillancourt of Greenville, New Hampshire.

McPhee’s own gift, apart from a command of sinewy American-English prose, is his ability to find the interest in anything, which always hides in details. Here McPhee discovers it in the science of selecti
Feb 01, 2012 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
Michael Powell
Mar 19, 2011 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
May 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
"The sky after dark was as clear as a lens. There was no moon. We stood on the shore, tilted back our heads, looked up past the branches of the jack pines, and watched for shooting stars. One after another they came, at intervals too short to require patience."

"The wind and Henri's patience are drawing lines across the day, and when they converge we will load up and go... The waves are rolling hard, but the waiting, apparently, has built the case for going."
Jul 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
McPhee's writing once again has charmed me. Until I got a few pages in I had forgotten that I'd read this one nearly forty years ago. There's a character study, there's some technology, some how-to, some geography, some history, a bit of travelogue and plenty of reminder of what a marvel the canoe is, with the bark canoe being the pinnacle of the art. This last point is finely supported by McPhee in several ways and several places. Rereading this has been a happy occasion for me.
Apr 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Caroline by: Sharon Bautista
A gunwale is the outer ledge of the canoe; it is bisected by thwarts. -- There’s hardly anything as fun as reading to friends' recommendations, but this is especially great on voyageurs, their colorful shirts, hundred pound bales of mink, and 8-gallon keg (1) of brandy. Also, in specific company, a dinner menu out of camp: reflector oven gingerbread, freeze-dried vanilla ice cream, and jerky. But on the living room floor, please.
Roger Burk
Feb 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: readlist
Henri's life work is to recover the ancient Native American craft of building birch-bark canoes. He makes canoes from trees, using only an axe, an awl, and a crooked knife. No nails; parts are tied together with tree roots. Pitch serves for glue and caulk. The sublime writer John McPhee joins him and some friends in a canoe trip across northern Maine, with many headwinds, muddy portages, and rainstorms. They hope to see a moose.
Dec 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Outstanding book, aren't all of John McPhee's books outstanding? Obviously, I am a fan of McPhee narrative style. In this instance, McPhee describes a man that is keeping the construction and travel in traditional birch bark canoe alive. Well worth the read if you are a canoeist and someone who loves the outdoors and human-powered travel.
Matt Messinger
Jan 11, 2015 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
May 11, 2011 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.
Will Lashley
Oct 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
In 2010, John McPhee gave an interview to one of his former students, Peter Hessler of the Paris Review, that was published as the third instalment in their series “The Art of Nonfiction.”Hessler wrote a deft description of McPhee’s mastery of the art of nonfiction in his preface to the interview. “He rarely draws attention to himself, but his sense of structure, detail, and language is so refined that his presence is felt on every page. For profile subjects he gravitates toward craftsmen of a s ...more
Jul 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I picked this up because I am an avid fan of McPhee's writing. One of his books (Encounters with the Archdruid) launched me on my career as a geographer, even though he is a professor of English (which was my major at the time). I am not a McPhee completist, exactly, but I have thoroughly enjoyed many of his books on a wide range of topics.

I picked up this slim volume because I am now an avid rower, and though paddling a canoe is quite different from rowing a whaleboat, I have become a bit of a
Dec 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is the third John McPhee book I have read this year and my love for the man grows exponentially with every book I finish. He is simply one of the most phenomenal authors I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Unlike many of the other reviewers here, I actually was interested in birch bark canoes before reading this book, and had not more than a little trepidation about how McPhee would broach the subject of a white man who is widely hailed as the most gifted builder of birch bark canoes (an ...more
Jun 05, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Having met the subject of this book, Henri Vaillancourt, I was very motivated to read his story. McPhee writes well, tells an engaging tale, does go off on some relevant tangents, and though he may not always tell the whole story, he does interest the reader in the adventure and the work of building authentic birch-bark canoes. It reminds us all that there is more than one side to a story and that authors can change reality, even when writing non-fiction.

All five of the participants on the river
Apr 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Some years ago I read the shortened New Yorker version of this book along with a variety of John McPhee's other writings. I have been pleased with his thorough research on a wide and various range of subjects (some of which initially I didn't believe would hold much interest for me) and his clear enjoyable writing style. This particular book on the bark canoe and it's survival may not be interesting some people but I found it fascinating. McPhee is a true craftsman.
Nov 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
Really fascinating look at these amazing boats. I glazed over a couple of times at the infinitely detailed descriptions, but still some really interesting history, technique, and a little narrative thrown in.
Jun 21, 2017 rated it liked it
3.5 stars. All the stuff about the canoes is great, though hard to picture sometimes. Referring to the sketches at the back early on might help. The parts about the trip were good and entertaining, nicely rounding out the character study.
Feb 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, nature
One third biography of the canoe builder, one third technical description of how one builds a canoe and one third travelogue of a canoe adventure in the wilderness. All three thirds charming in their own way. McPhee's style is sui generis.
Aug 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
Enjoyed the story of the men’s camping trip & journey in the canoes. Bogged down in some of the canoe details! Overall a very good read.
Susan Bache Brewer
May 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2019
Everything you ever wanted to know about birch bark canoes and then some!
Paul Tubb
Sep 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"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
Jul 23, 2014 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
Bruce Cook
Dec 09, 2013 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
Jul 05, 2009 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
Sep 11, 2013 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
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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