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.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
May 01, 1982
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Excerpt from The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee
THE SURVIVAL OF THE BARK CANOE
When Henri Vaillancourt goes off to the Maine woods, he does not make extensive plans. Plans annoy him. He just gets out his pack baskets, tosses in some food and gear, takes a canoe, and goes. He makes (in advance) his own beef jerky--slow-baking for many hours the leanest beef he can find. He takes some oatmeal, some honey, some peanut butter. Not being sure how long he will be gone, he makes only a guess at how much food he may need, although he is going into the Penobscot-Allagash wilderness, north of Moosehead Lake. He takes no utensils. He prefers to carve them. He makes his own tumplines, his own carry boards. He makes his own paddles. They have slender blades, no more than five inches across. He roughs them out with his axe and carves them with his crooked knife, a tool well known in the north woods, almost unknown everywhere else. And--his primary function--he makes his own canoes. He carves their thwarts from hardwood and their ribs from cedar. He sews them and lashes them with the split roots of white pine. There are no nails, screws, or rivets keeping his canoes together--just the rootlashings, in groups spaced handsomely along the gunwales, holding the framework to the bark.
Vaillancourt built his first canoe in 1965, when he was fifteen. He had tried to make other canoes in earlier years, always working by trial and error, until error prevailed. He had never paddled a canoe, had not so much as had a ride in one. In a passionate way, he had become interested in Indian life, and the aspect of it that most attracted him was the means by which the Indians had moved so easily on lakes and streams through otherwise detentive forests. He wanted to feel--if only approximately--what that had been like. His desire to do so became a preoccupation. He has said that he would have settled gladly for a ride in a wood-and-canvas canoe, or even an aluminum or a Fiberglas canoe--any canoe at all. But no one he knew had one. His town--Greenville, in southern New Hampshire--was small and had suffered from closing mills and regional depression. Greenville had ponds but no canoes. So far as he could see, there was only one way to achieve his wish. If he wanted to ride in a canoe, he would have to make one, and from materials at hand. White birches were all through the woods around the town. After his first couple of failures, a cousin who had become aware of his compulsion sent him an old copy of Sports Afield in which an article described, without much detail, how the Indians had done it. Henri laid out a building bed, went out and cut bark and saplings, and began to grope his way into a technology that had evolved in the forest under anonymous hands and--as he would learn--was much too complex merely to be called ingenious. His standards were--where else?--in their nascent stages, and he made his ribs out of unsplit saplings. What came up off the bed, though, was a finished, symmetrical, classical canoe. He picked it up and took it to a pond. He is lyrical (uncharacteristically lyrical) in describing that moment in that day and the feel of the canoe's momentum and response."The first canoe I ever got into was one of my own. I can launch the best ones now and they don't thrill me onetenth as much. It was the glide, the feel of it, just the sound as it rustled over the lily pads."
He took the canoe home and, before long, destroyed it with an axe. "It was a piece of junk," he explains. "I didn't want it around to embarrass me. Pieces of it still crop up here, now and then, and they go into the stove." He had had his initial thrill, and it had felt good, but his standards had gone shooting skyward, and that first canoe would never do. He formed an ambition, which he still has, to make a perfect bark canoe, and he says he will not rest until he has done so. He says that some of his canoes may look perfect to other people but they don't to him, because he sees things other people cannot discern. He has built thirty-three birch-bark canoes. He is in his mid-twenties now, and--with the snowshoes and paddles he makes in winter--he does nothing else for a living. Three or four Indians in Canada are also professional makers of bark canoes, and one old white man in Minnesota. All the rest--the centuries of them--are dead. With a singleness of purpose that defeats distraction, Henri Vaillancourt has appointed himself the keeper of this art. He has visited almost all the other living bark-canoe makers, and he has learned certain things from the Indians. He has returned home believing, though that he is the most skillful of them all.