The Survival of the Bark Canoe
John McPhee, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975).
The story is of a canoe trip in Northern Maiine taken in hand-made bark canoes that had been built by Henri Vaillancourt. Henry Vaillancourt is well-known in the community of traditional canoe makers. I have read a great deal about Henry and about the canoes that he makes in Greenville, New Hampshire. But this adventure is as much about the personality of Henry as it is about the remarkable craft that he makes at his home.
I have had the pleasure on a couple of occasions of meeting individuals that can best be described as a person who was born a century too late. That seems to be the case with Henry. He has a soil set that would have made him successful a hundred or even three hundred years ago. In our culture, however, those skills don’t garner much public attention. And Henry is happy without the attention. He makes the canoes and he sells canoes to get the money to live, but he doesn’t really want to sell his boats, and money is hardly a motivating factor in his life.
If I am a paddler who occasionally makes a canoe, Henry is a builder who occasionally paddles a boat. He lacks some of the social skills and some of the survival skills that it would take to be a good Maine guide. Still, I leave the book wishing that I could go on such a trip with Henry. I’d be willing to make extra trips at portages and endure a bit of abuse for the experience of being next to someone who really understands how to make a canoe of all natural materials and leave a small footprint when he passes.
Again I am grateful for John McPhee’s superb storytelling skills. This is a book that will be sitting next to Thoreau’s “Into the Maine Woods,” in my library. In the midst of a sleepless, stress-filled night somewhere in my future, the story will transport me to a time and a place where the world makes sense and the beauty and power of nature offers a partnership to those who are willing to embrace it.