Brayden Haws

April 2, 2021

Survival of the Bark Canoe


I just wrapped up reading Survival of the Bark Canoe and could not have enjoyed it more. I have long heard about John McPhee and his ability to deep dive on obscure topics from Tim Ferriss and other but this was my first chance to check out his work for myself. While it is definitely a book anyone interested in the outdoor or woodworking will enjoy, there are a few more meaningful lessons that I took away.

The first, from the author, if you want to do something right be willing to give it your all and deep dive. McPhee is able to take a seemingly niche topic and turn it into something that anyone would enjoy because he was willing to put in work that no one else would. Instead of merely reading up on the art of bark canoes, he found the world's expert builder in a small town in New Hampshire. And once he found him he didn't just interview him or watch him work in the shop, instead he embarked on a weeks long canoe trip with him, to fully immerse himself in the world. Through doing this he give us a great view into what it takes to not only build these canoes the right way, but how to respect them and how to get the most out of them in the wild. It is no doubt that if McPhee hadn't gone all the way this would have read a textbook and would not have kept readers captivated.

The second lesson, taken from the main character of the story, is to know where you are and expert and also know you limits. In this case Henri is a bark canoe craftsman, probably the best in the world. He spends his days building canoes using techniques perfected by Native Americans over hundreds of years. Though the canoes are made exclusively of natural materials and each made by hand, their performance and heartiness far exceed canoes made of aluminum or canvas & wood. In the realm of build canoes there is none better than Henri and he knows it. However, while on the canoe trip it becomes apparent that while Henri is an expert in building canoes, he is not an expert in operating them or in being a woodsmen in general. Since he built the canoes he assumes he should also lead the trip, but it soon becomes apparent that he doesn't have much of a clue of what to do out in the wild. This leads to a series of incidents and setbacks for the traveling party. It is a shame because others in the party are expert woodsmen and survivalists who have spent countless hours in the woods and far outpace Henri's experience. The takeaway for each of us is that we need to know our own strengths and weakness and be willing to defer to other in areas where we are not strong. Take that time to learn from them and upskill yourself. It will not just benefit you but the group as a whole.

This was my first McPhee book but I will definitely be picking up a few more of his books shortly.

About Brayden Haws

Healthcare guy turned tech wannabe. Doing product stuff at Grow. Building Utah Product Guild⚒️. Constantly tinkering on my 🛻. Occasionally writing poor takes on product strategy and technology⬇️.

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