Once lost, the information on primitive watercraft cannot, as a rule, be recovered.
“It might be said fairly that those who had the best opportunities to observe, including many whose profession it was to record the culture of primitive man, showed little interest in watercraft and have left us only the most meager descriptions. Even when the watercraft of the primitive man had obviously played a large part in his culture, we rarely find a record complete enough to allow the same accuracy of reproduction that obtains, say, for his art, his dress, or his pottery. Once lost, the information on primitive watercraft cannot, as a rule, be recovered.
However, as far as the bark canoes of North America are concerned, there was another factor. The student who became sufficiently interested to begin research soon discovered that one man was devoting his life to the study of these craft; that, in a field with few documentary records and fewer artifacts, he had had opportunities for detailed examination not open to younger men; and that it was widely expected that this man would eventually publish his findings. Hence many, who might otherwise have carried on some research and writing, turned to other subjects. Practically, then, the whole field had been left to Edwin Tappan Adney.” (Howard Chapelle, The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, Smithsonian 1964)
There it is, everything we know about bark canoes between two green buckram covers. John McPhee’s Survival of the Bark Canoe draws on Adney’s work, and it’s influence on Henri Vallaincourt, who builds birchbark canoes in Greenville, New Hampshire. Several years ago, Wooden Boat published an article about a 19th c. birchbark canoe that had been discovered in an English barn. Vallaincourt was the authority called in to examine the craft and advise on conservation. It would seem that one artisan is sufficient for a craft skill to survive.
Craft skills, I believe, lie in mastery of edge tools. That simple. If you can sharpen a chisel, fettle a plane, then any shape that you can imagine is conceivable. Machines won’t do that. You have to compromise with a machine. There is no compromise with a chisel.
“There are some things that cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes a man’s life to know them, the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.” Ernest Hemingway