Birch Bark Canoes

Americana, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on December 10, 2000
birch bark canoe

Henri Vaillancourt takes his crooked knife in hand and turns it slightly in the light, displaying the curved shape of the carving edge—the key to his craft. He smiles at it, perhaps recognizing that this small, nearly extinct tool has helped him live a life he loves for the last 32 years.

“My grandfather used one of these,” he says, his eyes brightening. “He carved ax handles with it.” With the help of an identical crooked knife, Vaillancourt has carved more than 140 canoes.

In many ways, the tool is an extension of Vaillancourt himself—traditional and purposeful, symbolizing a respectful sensibility. The air of patience is just as much a tool in the art of building his birch bark canoes as the centuries-old tradition of using the crooked knife, ax, and awl was for Native Americans.

While he learned woodworking from watching his grandfather, he also taught himself the art of canoe building after studying whatever information he could find, finally creating his first successful canoe at 15.

“I had always been involved. We always built forts and things,” Vaillancourt says from his log house in Greenville, N.H, (pop. 1,135), a home he designed and built out of rough-sawed lumber from a neighboring mill. “Observation is one of the best ways to learn. Watching and doing,” he says, nodding.

From the very first steps in the canoe building process, the boats are a part of him. He chooses the trees himself, and 400 laborious hours later, he has again turned tradition into a tangible. Made from white cedar, ash, and birch bark sewn with black spruce root and sealed with pine resin, they range in size from small 9-foot hunting canoes to the large 24-foot cargo canoes like those used during the fur trade era.

And even after all this time and all these canoes, sometimes Vaillancourt still surprises himself. “It’s the lines you give the canoe. You never can duplicate them exactly the same way, but you can come close,” he says.

Most buyers know his skills and are willing to pay the money and wait for quality workmanship. Most tend to be museums, collectors, and canoe enthusiasts or craft enthusiasts.

While Vaillancourt is content running his own business, he admits his business sense was less than adequate when he began at 20. After a year studying forestry at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, he decided the lifestyle he wanted couldn’t include working for the government or a corporation.

“I certainly thought self-employment was preferable. I had no idea, but I certainly knew I had an independent streak,” Vaillancourt says. “I just started building them and it caught the eye of Yankee Magazine. The tiny little piece (they published) got business for three years. It was like a ripple effect.”

But independent success wasn’t (and isn’t) the only thing on his mind. The preservation of tradition is a part of his life—from participating in local community betterment programs in his own small town to the nonprofit organization he started in 1977 with friend Todd Crocker to conduct research and document the traditional technologies and survival skills of northern Native Americans.

Another reason Vaillancourt is content to stay a one-man operation: “It (expanding) would cut into my freedom. I couldn’t wake up and think, What am I going to do today? There is the potential to make more money, but also the potential for more headaches. I’m lucky to have this niche.”

It is a niche others are apparently glad he fills. Vaillancourt has orders through 2002.