I first learned about La Chasse-galerie in my high school’s french class. La Chasse-galerie, known also as The Bewitched Canoe or The Flying Canoe, is a legend from Quebec. According to Wikipedia, it has its origins in The Wild Hunt stories, particularly one where a man, Gallery, was so fond of hunting that he skipped Sunday mass. As punishment, he is forever hunted by The Wild Hunt.
The tale changed as French settlers swapped stories with the First Nations and adapted it for the portage lifestyle. There are several versions of the story now, but the one I learned goes like this:
On New Years Eve, men from Gatineau sat around a fire in a logging camp, missing their loved ones who were back in the village, far away, and undoubtedly celebrating New Years by dancing and singing and being merry. Alas, the village was one hundred leagues away, so they were unhappily resigned to stay at camp for the night.
Until one man spoke up.
“I’m going to see my girlfriend,” he said.
“What? Impossible. How?”
“I will run the chasse-galerie.”
Running the chasse-galerie meant making a pact with the Devil so that he would bewitch their canoe to fly. Yes, it would work. It would get them there and back before morning. Everyone, however, was less than comfortable about making a pact with the Devil. Could they risk their eternal souls in order to see their loved ones?
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. We have to avoid crosses on churches and cannot blaspheme on the journey.”
After some convincing, they all decide to risk it. They get into a canoe, and chant:
Satan, roi des enfers, nous te promettons de te livrer nos âmes, si d’ici à six heures, nous prononçons le nom de ton maître et le nôtre, le, bon Dieu, et si nous touchons une croix dans le voyage. A cette condition, tu nous transporteras, à travers les airs, au lieu où nous voulons aller, et tu nous ramèneras de même au chantier. Acabris! Acabras! Acabram!….Fais-nous voyager par-dessus les montagnes.
(Satan, King of Hell, we permit you to have our souls if, in these six hours, we say the name of the Lord and if we touch a cross during the journey. Under these conditions, you may transport us through the air to where we want to go, then take us back to this site afterwards. Acabris! Acabras! Acabram! Let us go through the mountains.)
The canoe immediately begins to lift. At around 600ft above, they begin to paddle. The canoe shoots forward like an arrow.
Fifteen minutes later, they saw the lights of the city. They skirted around Montreal, then on to Gatineau. Although they saw people on the street, no one noticed them. The canoe moved so fast that they were gone in the blink of an eye.
Five minutes after Montreal, they reached in Gatineau. They landed in the field of one of their relatives, left the canoe on the edge of the forest, and walked into town.
Eventually, they found where the party was at. In order to keep their heads clear, they decided not to drink. They knocked on the door and were welcomed with open arms.
They danced and made merry. When it was time to go back to the canoe, it was clear that the navigator had had a drop too much to drink. Instead of leading them back around Montreal, they took a river in to the west of Montreal. They narrowly missed hitting the Grand Cross of Temperence. Then they crashed the canoe into a snow bank.
Luckily, it was not broken. However, the navigator then began to swear like a sailor. He then decides to go have a drink in Ottawa.
The rest of the crew unanimously decide to tie and gag him for the rest of the trip.
They hit a pine tree near their camp and crashed again. When they woke, they were back in their cabins, safe and sound but hungover.
Other versions of the story involve an Acadian myth where, instead of a flying canoe, it was an axe-handle that stretched to allow them to see their loved ones. Sometimes it is the Devil steering, trying to trip them up on the return journey. The men could be loggers, explorers, trappers, portagers, etc.
The National Film board of Canada’s version: