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Off The Beaten Path: The journey of Les Voyageurs

By Lucy Perkins, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 15, 2012

It doesn’t seem like much has changed in the last century here on the Huron River. Thick smoke spirals waft from the little red bungalow’s chimney on a cold November night, warm yellow windows wink in the darkness. Standing on the front porch, it’s clear that this is a place where memories of one of the oldest societies on campus dwell.

This is the home of the second-oldest student society, following only the Men’s Glee Club: Les Voyageurs. The society is full of members who are passionate about doing things outside: Spur of the moment hiking or camping adventures and potlucks are standard for this group. They built this cabin in 1927; they cook, they learn, they canoe, they go outside.

The society is named for the original French voyageurs who paddled canoes in the fur trade during the 19th century.

The cabin — known as Habe Mills Pine Lodge, in honor of one of the early members — is surrounded by tall pines, stacks of firewood and a shed of canoes and bicycles. The group was founded in 1907 by Lawrence Lark, Chester MacChesney and Elmer Lehndorff (known fondly by LVs as “Lindy”), who wanted to form a group that shared a love for nature along with the wonder and mystery of the outdoors.

“They were these men who were really rugged and they depended upon each other,” said LSA junior Sarah Alexander, chief of Les Voyageurs. “It was life or death for them; they had to paddle together and survive together.”

That sense of adventure and intensity is what knits the group together today, though the idea of survival may have more to do with midterm papers and exams than Mother Nature’s harsh elements.

Keeping the legend

Historically, membership in Les Voyageurs was fueled by the University’s School of Forestry, which was founded in 1927 and is now the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Their presence is still visible in the cabin. Saws from the World War I and II era stand four feet tall and lean against the fireplace.

“It was never called a forestry club by those who belonged to the society a long time ago,” Alexander said. “We still chop our wood (at the cabin), those kinds of skills are really important to us. You’ll come down and sense that there was a lot of flannel and beards here.”

Now the group has many members who are in the Program in the Environment and the School of Natural Resources and Environment, but there are also students from the College of Engineering, the School of Nursing and LSA.

LV, as it’s referred to by the few who are familiar with it, is small by nature. As a rule, membership is capped at 20 active members each year.

“It starts losing that small community feel and is too hard to manage (if it grows),” Alexander said.

The history here is palpable. On each windowsill, wall and bookshelf lie various memorabilia. Tusks from a wild beast perch daintily on a bookshelf, while enormous antique snowshoes hang crisscrossed a few feet away. A stump whose surface has been hacked thousands of times by the hatchet firmly lodged in its face sits next to the fireplace.

Though its presence often goes unseen on campus, Les Voyageurs isn't a secret society. Members appear annually at Festifall with one of their seven canoes and flyers can be found on various posting walls across campus.

Because it’s such a small group, advertising isn’t a necessity — they’re content as is. LVs usually become involved by word of mouth.

LSA junior Lily Bonadonna is the keeper of the legends — a role that includes keeping track of photos and other memorabilia from years past. She started coming to the cabin after her neighbor, another active LV, told her about it.

“I just started going to dinner and meeting everyone and I really liked it,” Bonadonna said.

Students who want to be a part of the society start the process by attending Sunday potlucks, the society’s weekly event.