The chasse-galerie is one of the most emblematic legends in Québec folklore. It involves blasphemy, lust, drunkenness, resourcefulness, dancing and flying canoes. How can you go wrong with that?

The story

Here's the situation. You're a lumberjack, chopping down trees in remote areas to make way for civilization. It's the middle of winter and you're stuck at the camp, miles away from family and girlfriend alike. You especially miss the latter: you haven't seen a woman in months. You and the guys are getting all maudlin, thinking about the parties back at the village. But what can you do?

Call on the Devil, of course.

Ole Satan, it turns out, is happy to lend a hand, as long as people play by his rules. The ritual requires the following ingredients:

... and that's it. No candles, no blood, no fuss.

All the participants get into the canoe and take off their crucifixes (or any other religious items). The master of ceremony implores Satan to take the whole gang to where they want to go, and bring them back, as long as they follow certain rules:

  • none must pronounce the name of the Lord (the Fallen being touchy about his old master, no doubt)
  • none must touch a cross
  • all must be back before a certain time (sunrise, usually)

If any of the passengers break any of those rules, all their souls will belong to the Devil.

That being established, the participants pronounce the magic formula: "Acabris! Acabras! Acabram! Fais-nous voyager par-dessus les montagnes (take us over the mountains)".

With the ritual now complete, the canoe rises into the air and flies away, gathering speed and altitude. Trees roll by like an endless carpet; church steeples zoom past, as the passengers go from terror to exhilaration and start singing and hollering. The destination appears on the horizon, approaches, the canoe loses altitude and finally comes to a sliding halt in the snow.

That's where the hard part begins. Think about it: you're re-united with your friends, your family and the woman you love (or lust after, at least). The fire is crackling, there's booze aplenty, maybe even a fiddler... and time flies, when you're having fun. The chasse-galerie seems like a good deal, but keep in mind that the Devil knows a thing or two about human nature.

Most stories of the chasse-galerie end with the revelers hopping into the canoe at the last minute, racing against the sunrise. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don't. It's so easy to drunkenly veer the canoe into the steeple of a church, or to let loose a few blasphemous words as you're hanging on for dear life...

The background

The most well-known, authoritative version of this story was written by Honoré Beaugrand, who put to paper many of the folk tales of his day. Most of the details above come from his version.

As with many other Québec legends, the chasse-galerie can be traced to France, where a man named "De Gallery", who was fond of hunting on Sundays, was condemned to an eternal hunt through the skies.

The Unibroue brewery produces a beer called La Maudite, which sports on its label a great painting of the flying canoe. Yes, you can always learn from beer...

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