The Flying Canoe Is A 19th Century French-Canadian Acid Trip....And We Love it!
Over the last several years I’ve become pretty good friends with a bunch of folks from Québec. Usually, around December, they start talking about this Flying Canoe story and how I need to read it. Few details are ever offered about the story.
Naturally, I hear flying in December and I think Santa. For a long time, I was under the impression that the flying canoe was some sort of French-Canadian Christmas tale. Wow was I way off.
I decided to sit down a few weeks back and read a version of this story. I’m told there are a couple of different versions, but they all have the same jist.
A long time ago in a snowy land far far away (just kidding it was Québec), some lumberjacks were snowed in on New Year’s Day. They were sad and missing home. They drank in their hut or tent and toasted the New Year. One guy named, Baptiste, had other ideas. He wanted to go home and see his wife or girlfriend as soon as possible. Baptiste intended to use his canoe to get home, but not just any canoe.
Apparently, Baptiste made a pact with the devil that would allow him to fly the canoe wherever he wanted, as long as he returned the canoe home before dawn the next day (and avoid a few religious things). Well, that escalated quickly.
So the Coureurs des bois could fly wherever they wanted but had to be back before dawn, if they didn’t the devil would get their souls. Super risky! Right?
Through my American Puritanical eyes, that’s pretty intense. Fortunately, Dr. Patrick Lacroix from Query the Past eased my concerns a little bit. In French-Canadian folk culture the devil is more of a “trickster” than what an American audience is used to.
Back to our story. The fellas get home and hang out with their ladies for the day and then attempt to rush back. One HUUUUGE problem, our buddy Baptiste had a bit too much to drink and the boys have to scramble to get back before dawn. I’ve seen stories where they don’t make it back and are never heard from again. There are also versions where they outsmart the devil and make it back in time. The End.
First things first, I one zillion percent prefer the version where our heroes escape the snow, get home for the night, AND beat the devil at his own game. It’s just a more fun story. The version where the guys are never heard from again feels too dark.
One thing I’m really struck by is that there seems to be no real moral to the story. It’s just about beating the French-Canadian version of the devil.
Reminds me a little bit of one of the early 2000s road trip movies. A bunch of guys hop in a bus on a journey and have strange little mini-adventures on the way.
I'd love to see a modern version of the story made into a movie. It’d be something like a couple of video game designers from Montréal are stressed out about the deadline for their new video game release. They are working all hours and miss their families. The devil appears in the video game and offers our lead character “Marie” a flying poutine truck that she and her comrades can fly anywhere in Canada. There is a catch of course. They must return the poutine truck by nightfall on the Fête nationale du Québec or the devil gets their souls. Bam – billion-dollar idea!
I wonder why my Franco-American ancestors didn't hand this story down? Maybe it was still too new when they arrived in the US? That would make the most sense. I mean how can you not hand down a story like this? It's cool in any language!