The Flying Canoe – A French Canadian Tale

While we wait for the flying cars we were promised, here’s a 19th-century French Canadian story of a flying canoe.

The story begins on New Year’s Eve. A group of voyageurs (or loggers in some versions) off at an isolated camp start to pine for their sweethearts, a 100 leagues (300 miles) away. So the lonely men decide to run the “chasse-galerie.”

What is the chasse-galerie? The author of an early published version of the story claimed to have met many an old voyageur who  claimed to have “seen bark canoes traveling in mid-air, full of men paddling and singing away, under the protection of Beelzebub, on their way from [their far-flung] camps . . . to pay a flying visit to their sweethearts at home.”

The Flying Canoe

Running the “chasse-galerie” meant making a pact with the Devil so that the canoe would fly through the air to their destination. However, the rules of devilish airborne travel apply: travelers must not mention God’s name or touch the cross of any church steeple as they whisk by in the flying canoe. If either of these rules are broken during the voyage, then the Devil will have their souls.

But it was apparently worth that risk for those voyageurs to be able to kiss their sweethearts on New Year’s Eve.

To be safe, the men promise not to touch another drop of rum that night, to keep their heads clear. [We sense at this point in the story that something just might go awry!]

The crew take their places in the canoe, which rises off the ground, and they start to paddle through the air.

We felt the canoe rising in the air to a height of five or six hundred feet. I felt as light as a feather, and at Baptiste’s command, we commenced paddling like sorcerers that we were. At the first stroke of the paddle, the canoe shot out like an arrow.

We went faster than the wind, and during the first fifteen minutes we sailed over the forest, without perceiving anything else than the dark heads of the great pines.

It was a beautiful night, and a full moon lighted up the sky like the midday sun. It was terribly cold though, and our mustaches were fairly frozen, while our bodies were all in a perspiration. We were paddling like demons at work in the lower regions.

We soon perceived a bright, glistening belt of clear ice, that shone like a mirror. That was the Gatineau River; and then the lights in the farm-houses, which were mostly lit up on New Year’s eve. We began passing the tin-covered steeples as quickly as telegraph-poles fly past in a railway-train, and the spires shone in the air like the bayonets of the soldiers drilling on the Champ de Mars, in Montreal.

On we went . . . passing over forests, rivers, towns, villages, and leaving behind us a trail of sparks.

[from a version of the Flying Canoe story published in English in August 1892 in the Century Magazine of New York]

The bewitched canoe eventually touches down near a house where New Year’s Eve festivities are in full swing. No one wonders at the men’s sudden arrival. They are welcomed and soon are merrily dancing the four-handed reel.

But it turns late. The men must leave if they are to get back to camp in time for work. As they fly homeward through the moonless night, their leader Baptiste steers the canoe on an unsteady course. It seems that he had been visiting the punch bowl a bit too often at the dance party.

Passing over Montreal they just miss running into a church steeple, and soon after the canoe runs into a snowdrift on a mountainside.

At this point the drunken Baptiste begins swearing and taking the Lord’s name in vain. Terrified the Devil will take their souls, the men bind and gag their friend and elect another to navigate.

But Baptiste breaks his bonds and begins swearing again. The crew become terrified at the prospect of losing their souls, and they eventually steer the bewitched canoe right into a tall pine.

The men spill out and are knocked unconscious (or pass out). The ending of the story changes from version to version. Sometimes the men are condemned to fly the canoe through hell and appear in the sky every New Year’s Eve, a version of the bewitched Wild Hunt.

All I can say, my friends, is that it is not so amusing as some people might think, to travel in mid-air, in the dead of winter, under the guidance of Beelzebub, running la chasse-galeriey.

As in many a spooky tale, hindsight is 20/20.

However, the narrator’s main regret, he admits, is that he had to leave the party early “without saying good-bye . . . not even to Liza Guimbette, whom I had invited for the next cotillion. I always thought that she bore me a grudge for that” . . .

. . . for when the poor fellow came back to visit her the next summer, she was married to another man.

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