Get cozy on a cold night. Here is a popular French-Canadian story — the tale of the Flying Canoe. (also known as La Chasse Galerie, The Bewitched Canoe and The Wild Hunt.)
It’s New Year’s Eve at a far-flung trading post. The voyageurs are lonely, nervous about their sweethearts back home who are probably being romanced by men closer at hand. How can these desolate men keep their true loves loyal when they are so far away? And the men have to be present to work the next morning.
One of the engagés finally suggests calling on la chasse-galerie, a magic flying canoe, for a one-night journey. The men agree. The engagé who knows the secret invokes a devil* who extracts a deal to fly this canoe.
For this privilege of returning to their village and returning by dawn, the voyageurs vow not to swear, drink or touch a cross or crucifix — or they forfeit their souls. Of course they agree.
They start paddling and — amazingly — their canoe rises so they can see rivers far below. Then the wind takes over and gives them a thrilling ride, rocketing them over treetops, dipping down over frozen waterfalls, nearly crashing into many obstacles because their avant and gouvernail don’t quite know how to steer using the wind. Or maybe it’s the devil — they don’t know.
But they see the village lights and the bewitched canoe touches down near their home. No one there thinks twice about the voyageurs’ unusual arrival from an impossibly distant place. They all have a wonderful time dancing and singing and celebrating.
Until the wee hours when — Cinderella-ish — the voyageurs realize it’s past time to get back if they are going to make it to work the next day. Some have broken the promise not to drink. How will the devil take this breach?
Because they have been partying, steering on the return route is haphazard, and the canoe careens around, barely missing church steeples and tall trees, snowdrifts and open waters.
And because of their chaotic steering, others swear and touch their own “forbidden” crosses, praying in fear of death. Somehow they manage to get home, plowing into a snowdrift (or a pine tree) just short of their own post as the sun peeks out, in the nick of time.
Luckily, the devil does not take his due, though they had broken every promise of the deal. They vow not to use that magic again.
If you look at the moon and see a flying canoe, perhaps the engagés got lonesome again and took a chance on the chasse-galerie, the flying canoe.
Voyageurs had plenty of scary life experiences — running rapids, starvation, surviving terrible weather, dealing with occasionally hostile First Americans whom they may have liquored up, the unpredictability of wild animals like bears and wolves, moose and bison. They liked to tell stories of their exploits, and might have made them even more harrowing. Or maybe not — those adventures could all be real.
*Typical devils encourage bad behavior such as swearing and drinking, but this devil does not take anyone’s soul. Maybe getting back before dawn was the real key. What do you think?