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HomeNL-2013-10 The Flying Canoe

"The Flying Canoe"
by Honoré Beaugrand
Introduction by John Rich
"The Flying Canoe", also known as "La Chasse-galerie" and "The Bewitched Canoe" is a popular French-Canadian tale of voyageurs who make a deal with the devil.  A voyageur is a professional canoeman who transported furs and other goods by canoe during the 17th and 18th century fur trade era in the far north of North America.  The story appears in several varieties, but its most famous version was written by Honoré Beaugrand (1848–1906), and was first published in 1892.  A synopsis of the story follows.

After a night of heavy drinking on New Year's Eve, a group of voyageurs working at a remote timber camp wanted to visit their sweethearts some 300 miles away.  The only way to make such a long journey and be back in time for work the next morning was to makie a pact with the devil so that their canoe could fly through the air to their destination with great speed. However, in exchange for this gift from the devil, the travellers were forbidden to mention God's name or touch the cross of any church steeple as they whisked by in the flying canoe.  If either of these rules were broken during the voyage, then the devil would have their souls.
  The Flying Canoe
  The Party
To be safe, the men promised not to touch another drop of rum to keep their heads clear. The crew take their places in their canoe which then rises off the ground, and they start to paddle. Far below they see the frozen Gatineau River, many villages, shiny church steeples and then the lights of Montreal. The bewitched canoe eventually touches down near a house where New Year's Eve festivities are in full swing. No one wonders at the voyageur's sudden arrival. They are embraced with open arms and are soon dancing and celebrating as merrily as everyone else. 
The Crash
Soon it is late and the men must depart if they are to get back to camp in time for work the next day. As they fly through the moonless night, it becomes apparent that their navigator had been drinking, as he steers the canoe on a dangerously unsteady course. While passing over Montreal they just miss running into a church steeple, and soon afterward the canoe ends up stuck in a deep snowdrift. At this point the drunken navigator begins swearing and taking the Lord's name in vain. Terrified that the devil will take their souls, the men bind and gag their friend and elect another to steer. The navigator soon breaks his bonds and begins swearing again. The crew become more and more shaken at the possibility of losing their souls, and they eventually steer the bewitched canoe right into a tall pine tree. The men spill out and are knocked unconscious.
The men are found the next morning asleep in a snow drift under the pine tree with only minor injuries.  No one is willing to tell their tale of how they made a deal with the devil and flew through the air, and they are content to let their campmates believe that they had just been out drinking too much.  They escaped the terms of their deal with the devil.

The story-teller concludes:
"Take my advice and don't listen to anyone who would try and rope you in for such a trip... for it is better to run all the rapids of the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence on a raft, then to travel in partnership with the devil himself."     

And this tall tale sounds all too familiar with some of our own Houston Canoe Club paddle trips, which start out sounding like such terrific ideas, but then turn into harrowing adventures with a strange cast of fun-loving characters. 
The full 28 page story can be read here: La Chasse-Galerie
"The Flying Canoe" tale has a strong influence in Canadian culture. 
A Canadian 40¢ postage stamp was issued in 1991 illustrating the legend, as part of a series on Canadian folktales.  One of the oldest rides in the Montreal amusement park is a sawmill log ride, but overhead is a representation of the flying canoe with the devil perched behind the terrified men.  Montreal folk metal band Blackguard use an image of the flying canoe on the cover of their 2009 record album.  During the opening ceremony for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, a canoe containing fiddler Colin Maier was lowered from the ceiling in an allusion to the legend.  And the legend also serves as the label motif for Maudite ale produced in Quebec. 

Postage stamp    Album cover     Beer!

The author,
Honoré Beaugrand