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The Survival of the Bark Canoe

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  987 ratings  ·  76 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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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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Aug 27, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I started reading this book and immediately began to plan a trip north. I needed to be in the woods. I felt like I was there in New Hampshire, learning the history of the craft of birchbark canoes, watching a crotchety artist at work and getting lost in the Maine woods. A lovely piece of writing and a good story, interweaving the history of the craft and fur trading with a particular canoe trip with slowly rising tensions.

Some quibbles I have, though: I thought the description of the different p
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
Ken Gross
Sep 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
A two-for one book: one part details the history and construction of birch bark canoes through their primary modern craftsman, Henri Vaillancourt; the second part—told concurrently—depicts an epic journey partially retracing the route taken by Henry David Thoreau in his travelogue, The Maine Woods. Expertise in one field does not necessarily lead to expertise in another field.

This classic is a scant 115 or so pages plus appendices. This is a must read if you have any interest in canoeing, Native
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.
Paul Cloutier
Oct 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What an extraordinary little book! The bold text is a story about building and running birch bark canoes in Maine. But the subtext is sort of about how we learn. That knowing something and understanding it are not the same. The master canoe maker here doesn’t really know how to use them. Fun and fast read
David Kessler
Jun 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
John McPhee at his best. Just how can you not wish to travel by a birch bark canoe made with your own hands with an axe, an adze and a hooked knife. Handmade. A wonderful yarn.
And it is all true. John goes on an adventure with four other men in Northern Maine and one of those men is the maker of birch bark canoes, Henri Vaillancourt. A most interesting chap!
Russell Yarnell
Sep 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
John McPhee is a great story teller. The book starts about a guy that builds canoes. Then he talks about the history of the canoe. The changes, or lack of changes, to canoes. The trip he took with the canoe building. History of logging in Maine. An introspective look at the people he is around. Observes a slice of life and then gives you a story out of it.
Joe Vess
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.
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.
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.
Sep 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
John McPhee can make ANYTHING interesting. He owns the craft of creative non-fiction, here making the stripping of bark from birch trees, building boats, and paddling into the wilderness the stuff of the heart and mind.
May 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
McPhee's gift for exploring the anachronism of a bark canoe takes the reader on a wonderful journey through the Maine woods that invokes the spirit of Thoreau and makes one long to experience the wilderness as few of us are able.
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. ...more
Paul Tubb
Sep 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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!
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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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