French Canadian Legends - The Witched Canoe
A favorite French Canadian legends is the "The Witched Canoe", or "La Chasse-galerie", a tale of loggers who make a deal with the Devil.
Folks stories and legends have always been part of a country’s cultural heritage. Canada is no exception. Each region has its own tales to share. The northern Inuit have their sea goddesses and talking walrus. The province of Alberta has stories of the Great South Wind, tall tales that grow more outrageous with each telling, despite “Chinooks” being a very real weather phenomenon.
Ghosts, hauntings, and stories about mystery creatures roaming forests or swimming the seas endure. Tales from the Atlantic provinces tell of haunted pirate ships and rich buried treasure. In Quebec, where Catholic influence is still very strong, stories involving the Devil are often incorporated into legends and fables. The legend of the “chasse-galerie”, or the witched canoe, is a favorite.
This particular story can be traced back to an original French legend about a rich nobleman named Gallery who loved to hunt. He loved it so much that he refused to attend Sunday mass. As punishment for this sin he was condemned to forever fly through the night skies, chased by galloping horses and howling wolves.
The “coureurs de bois” (runners of the forest) and the “voyageurs” of the St. Lawrence region of New France, adapted this original legend to suit their own lusty and irreverent lifestyle. While there is a certain aspect of fear of all things supernatural, particularly in making deals with the Devil, the lonely loggers and shantymen also injected a good dose of humor into the tale. Moreover the Devil is not actually part of the story, he is really nothing more than an allusion, an indirect character, but a feared one nonetheless.
The French Canadian legend of the “witched canoe” goes something like this. It’s New Year’s Eve, 1822, at a logging camp situated deep in the forest near the Gatineau River. The land is enveloped in another frigid winter, snow piled high up the sides of the logging shanties. The camp boss has passed out the customary small casks of potent rum, and Joe, the cook, has had too much and falls into a deep sleep.
After midnight Joe is roughly shaken awake by Baptiste Durand, who outlines his plans to go to Lavaltrie to visit his sweetheart. It’s New Year’s Eve, after all, and he misses her. Baptiste assures Joe that they’d be back by morning and wouldn’t miss work. Joe is amazed. How did Baptiste propose to travel 300 miles through dark forest and deep snow, and then return in time for work?! “Why, in our canoe,” Baptiste replies with a wink.
Joe realises there is but one explanation. His friend Baptiste has made a pact with the Devil. He’s proposing they run the “chasse-galerie”. If they did, they had to carefully follow the conditions set down by the Devil: that they not mention the Lord’s name and make sure no one touched the crosses on any of the church steeples as they whisked by in their flying canoe. Just to be on the safe side, Baptiste tells Joe, he’s made the other eight men who are going with them swear not to touch another drop of rum. They needed clear heads when dealing with the Devil, otherwise he would trick them into selling their souls!
Joe and the rest of the crew barely take their places in the canoe when the ghostly form of the Devil appears to carry then through the dark and icy night. Far below Joe sees the frozen Gatineau River, many villages, shiny church steeples and then the lights of Montreal. Soon the devil craft nears its destination.
Moments later the witched canoe reaches Batisette Auge’s house where New Year’s Eve festivities are in raucous swing. Fiddles play madly, dancers laugh and smile and swing their partners round the room. No one wonders at the loggers’ sudden arrival. They were embraced with open arms and soon dancing and celebrating as merrily as everyone else.
It’s 4AM and the men must leave if they are to get back to the logging camp in time for work. Joe searches for Baptiste, and to his horror finds him drunk. This cannot be! Baptiste had to steer the canoe! As they fly through the moonless night Baptiste’s hand is dangerously unsteady. While passing over Montreal he almost steers them into a church steeple. They don’t get much further before Baptiste lands them in a deep snowdrift.
Terrified the Devil is about to steal their souls, the men agree to bind and gag Baptiste, then elect Joe to steer. All is well for a few miles. Suddenly Baptiste breaks his bonds and swears like a sailor! The men are again horrified. Their friend has broken another cardinal rule! Shaken and terrified, Joe steers the witched canoe right into a tall pine. The men spill out and it is here that fellow loggers find them the next morning, none the worse for wear, and thinking the eight men had staggered outside to sleep off the effects of too much rum. Thankful that the Devil had not collected his unholy payment, Joe and the others dare not tell their friends the truth...
Other versions of the story developed in Quebec over the years. In Acadia the witched canoe was a fishing boat. In the Gaspe, it was a codfish bowl. Along the lower St. Lawrence revellers sailed in an upside-down carriage or on the back of a fat pig. And on the Magdelene Islands, howls, unholy screams and rattling chains could be heard as the canoe streaked across the dark sky. Whatever the story’s incarnation, the legend of Le Chasse-galerie remains a French Canadian favorite.