As the approach of Halloween heralds the end of our paddling season, we’ll share with you a strange river legend that hails not from the Bronx, but from the forested rivers of French Canada.
Gathered around their campfires at the end of an arduous day’s paddle, the old-time French voyageurs spoke of a magical watercraft that by diabolical force could be made to rise up and fly through the air, moving with enough speed to be able to make a round trip of hundreds of miles in a single night.
It was a wistful thought for men camped far away from their families and sweethearts, but the “Witch Canoe” came with some harsh conditions. It would carry only an even number of men (as many as eight) and worked only from midnight to dawn. Someone had to know the magic words needed to achieve lift-off and landing, and there was to be no drinking or cursing on the trip, a stringent rule for the hard-living voyageurs to follow. Above all, nobody was to speak the name of God or allow the canoe to hit the cross on a church steeple. In Québec, with its many churches, this could mean some tricky high-speed navigation in the dark, but failure meant that the passengers would be instantly plummeted into perdition.
Now and then a backwoods storyteller would claim to have ridden in this supernatural boat and returned with soul intact, but who could say how many broke the rules and were lost forever?
Today many a weary Bronx River portager might long for such a flying watercraft that could lift itself up over the dams and rapids, but, alas, the Alliance has never succeeded in obtaining a “witch canoe.”
Stephen Paul DeVillo