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The Survival of the Bark Canoe
By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1975 John McPhee
All rights reserved.
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 root lashings, 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 one-tenth 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.
What he learned from the Indians was minor detail, such as using square pegs instead of round ones to secure his gunwale caps. His actual teacher (through the printed sketch and the printed word) was Edwin Tappan Adney, who died in the year that Vaillancourt was born. Without Adney, Vaillancourt might today be working in a plastics factory. Adney was an American who went to New Brunswick in the eighteen-eighties and built a bark canoe under the guidance of a Malecite. He was twenty, and he recorded everything the Malecitetaught him. For the next six decades, he continued to collect data on the making and use of bark canoes. He compiled boxes and boxes of notes and sketches, and he made models of more than a hundred canoes, illustrating differing tribal styles, differences within tribes, and differences of design purpose. A short, low-ended canoe was the kindest to portage, and the best to paddle among the overhanging branches of a small stream. A canoe with a curving, rocker bottom could turn with quick response in white water. A canoe with a narrow bow and stern and a somewhat V-sided straight bottom could hold its course across a strong lake wind. A canoe with a narrow beam moved faster than any other and was therefore the choice for war. Adney so thoroughly dedicated himself to the preservation of knowledge of the bark canoe that he was still doing research, still getting ready to write the definitive book on the subject, when, having reached the age of eighty-one, he died. Over the next dozen years or so, Howard I. Chapelle, curator of transportation at the Smithsonian Institution, went through Adney's hills of paper and ultimately wrote the book, calling it The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Large in format, it has two hundred and forty-two pages containing drawings, diagrams, photographs, and a text that frequently solidifies with technical density:
When the bark has been turned up and clamped, the gores may be trimmed to allow it to be sewn with edge-to-edge seams at each slash. This is usually done after the sides are faired, by moving the battens up and down as the cuts are made, then replacing them in their original position. The gores or slashes, if overlapped, are not usually sewn at this stage of construction.
The U.S. Government Printing Office released the book in 1964, and Henri Vaillancourt first heard of it a couple of years later, when someone passing through town happened to mention it. He sent for a copy. The book enabled him, while still in his teens, to take a big step toward the perfection he was imagining when he hacked his first boat to pieces. His second completion was, in his words, "a very tolerable canoe."
He enrolled for a while in the forestry program at the University of New Hampshire, but in a sense Adney and Chapelle had already supplied him with his college, and the one in Durham interested him less than the one he could carry anywhere under his arm. So he went home to Greenville after his freshman year (1969) and began what in all likelihood will prove to be a life's career, since he appears to be interested in almost nothing else. Nothing much enters his time, his thought, or his conversation that does not have to do with the making and use of birch-bark canoes. He is unmarried and lives with his parents. He works in a small room that was his grandfather's shop—nine by fourteen feet—in a tarpapered shed that stands separate from the house. The shed is old, and light comes in at places other than the windows, but he has an iron stove with a chimney pipe that bends shy of the ceiling and makes a long horizontal trip through the room before penetrating to the outside. This rig is more than equal to the New Hampshire winter, and Vaillancourt, eight to twelve hours a day, sits below the long chimney in his shirtsleeves, feeding the stove, and stringing snowshoes or carving paddles or shaping the ribs, thwarts, and stempieces of the next summer's canoes. A picture on a wall shows hunters in a birch-bark canoe on Long Lake in the Adirondacks in 1880. Another is a Frederic Remington print of Chippewas in a canoe with high-swept ends, riding a big tail wind on the lakelike St. Lawrence. Stored on racks are long strips of split cedar, brought from Maine, which by spring will be resplit and split again to appropriate size, then tapered and finished with the crooked knife until they are ready to be lashed together as the gunwales of a started canoe. Vaillancourt, whittling, or rough-shaping wood with an axe, sits on a rocking chair over which is draped the hide of a deer. New paddles stand against the walls, and some are inlaid with deer bone, which looks like mother-of-pearl and is set in designs of eastern Canadian tribes. He bends hickory for his snowshoes, and he strings them—in a painstaking fineness of pattern—with rawhide that he scrapes and cuts. He is not a hunter, but there is no lack of hunters in Greenville, and they give him the skins he needs. He never uses power tools. He uses a froe, an axe, an awl, a crooked knife—and with the last three alone could build a canoe. The crooked knife is the finishing instrument, the tool whose ten thousand touches yield the artistry he seeks. One does not drive to a shopping center in search of a crooked knife. Tacked to the inside of the shed door is the address where Vaillancourt sends for his: Hudson's Bay Co., Pointe Claire, P.Q.
When the weather warms and the thaw is gone, Vaillancourt comes out of the shop and works in the yard. He has built a canvas-covered lean-to against a wall of the house, and under the lean-to he starts the canoes. After some weeks, he may have as many as four under construction, each in a different stage of the process. Music falls on him from a second-story window. He keeps his stereo up there, playing country-and-Western and Beethoven symphonies. Sometimes he becomes so absorbed in the music he makes mistakes on the canoes. He can build seven a year. Most are around sixteen feet long, and for that size he charges eight hundred and fifty dollars. Even after they are gone, he remains ferociously proprietary about them. He has made them for customers as far away as Idaho, but he seems to regard each canoe as his own forever, and his profoundest hope is that it will survive its owner and then be passed on to a museum. When he can, in his travels, he visits his canoes. This satisfies his longing to know how they are doing. He is pleased also to get one "back in the yard," so he can touch it up, repair it, perhaps even improve it in the light of his continually rising skills. He refers to "the yard" as someone else might refer to the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company.
"The yard" is on the edge of town. A state road runs close by, and a blinking light hangs overhead: the intersection of New Hampshire 31 and Mill Street, Greenville—population sixteen hundred, a mill town sitting on hillsides, divided by a stream. Since the mills folded, smaller businesses have been set up within their walls: plastics, apples, herbs. Three of Vaillancourt's grandparents came from farms along the south bank of the St. Lawrence, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. They came south for the money to be made in the mills, as did so many others, and not much about Greenville is English except its name. Stones in the cemetery say Rousseau, Blanchette, Bergeron, Fournier, Souliers, Chuinard, Bourgeois, Charrois, Desrosiers, McMillan, Beausoleil, Robichaud, Charbonneau, Baillargeon, Caron, Martin, Vaillancourt. French, as Henri grew up, was the language of the table at home, the language—although fading now—of the street. When Henri started school, French was used there. The change to English came soon after. Henri's mother and father (who works in a yarn mill in another town) refer to the people in surrounding towns, counties, and the rest of the United States as "les Américains." Henri's name, in French, is said the way it looks. In English, he is "Henry Vallenkort" to everyone in town.
A number of completely finished canoes might be strewn around the yard at any one time, for Vaillancourt is slow to ship them out, or if people are coming to get them he is in no hurry to notify them that the canoes are ready. He likes to keep his canoes awhile—use them some, test them out. Whatever the excuse may be, he does not like to let them go. Two were there when I first saw the yard. Their bark, smooth and taut, was of differing shades of brown, trellised with dark seams. I guess I had expected something a little rough, rippled, crude, asymmetrical. These things, to the eye, were perfect in their symmetry. Their color was pleasing. Turn them over—their ribs, thwarts, and planking suggested cabinetwork. Their authenticity seemed built in, sewed in, lashed in, undeniable. In the sunlight of that cold November morning, they were the two most beautiful canoes I had ever seen. All this—when what I had frankly feared encountering were outsize, erratic souvenirs.
I had spent a good part of my early summers in canoes and on canoe trips, and all the canoes I used in those years were made of wood and canvas. They were Old Towns and E. M. Whites—lake canoes, river canoes, keeled, and keel-less. The bark canoe was gone, but not as long gone as I then—in the nineteen-thirties and forties—imagined. Now, in the nineteen-seventies, wood-and-canvas canoes were gradually becoming extinct, or seemed to be. They were seen about as frequently on canoe trails as bark canoes apparently were fifty years ago. What had replaced the wood and canvas were new generations of aluminum, Fiberglas, and plastic—canoe simulacra that lacked resonance, moved without elegance, fairly lurched through the forest. Some of them—white streaked with black —were designed to suggest birch bark. The sport in white water—where runs are made against a stopwatch—had been taken over by small Fiberglas boats that were called canoes but looked like kayaks. And now here was Henri Vaillancourt, whom I had heard of through a note in a newsletter of the Canoe Cruisers Association, standing in his yard beside bark-covered canoes—in full-time resolve to preserve them in the world—shyly and with what I then took to be modesty answering a most obvious question. Oh, don't worry, they were quite strong, really strong. They could take quite a blow. The ribs and planking were flexible, the bark elastic and durable. All the wood in them had been split, none of it sawn. Split wood had more flexibility and more strength. If you hit a rock with sawn wood in your canoe you were more likely to crack the ribs and the planking. He cocked his arm and drove his fist into the bottom of one of the canoes with a punch that could have damaged a prizefighter. He is six feet tall and weighs a hundred and seventy-five pounds. The bottom of the canoe was unaffected. He remarked that the bark of the white birch was amazing stuff—strong, resinous, and waterproof. He said there was, in fact, virtually nothing the Indian canoe-makers did that was not as good as or better than what could be done with modern tools and materials.
His shyness was in his eyes—looking away, almost always, from the direction in which his voice was travelling—but not in his speech. He talked volubly, with nasal, staccato inflections, and if the subject was bark canoes he seemed in no hurry to stop. I stayed around the yard for a couple of days, and before I left we took one of the canoes and—as Vaillancourt likes to put it—"went for a spin" on a local pond. After paddling half a mile or so over rustling lily pads and open water, we rounded a point at one end of an island and Vaillancourt warned that the pond was shallow there and we might hit a rock. Crunch. We hit one. The canoe glanced off. It was moving fast—slicing, planing the water with much momentum and glide. Crunch. "Look out! There could be more!" Crunch.
Excerpted from The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee. Copyright © 1975 John McPhee. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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