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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. The meal usually attracts about 30 people, including actives, alums and friends of LVs. Dinner features a savory assortment of homemade dishes adorning the long, wooden dining room table.

Afterward an educational presentation begins, organized by the vice-chief, which is typically specific to outdoor-related subjects. Past presentations given by University professors included monarch butterflies and orienteering.

“I loved it because it’s just a bunch of people who love going outside; it’s a very cool group of people,” Bonadonna said.

Out on their own

Only six new members were inducted this year — more than usual for Les Voyageurs — in a secret ceremonial process members are forbidden to discuss.

The induction took place two weeks ago over the course of a weekend, filling the cabin with actives, inductees and alums that came back for the ceremony — some 50 people in total.

Though she declined to comment on the details of the process, Alexander emphasized that no hazing occurred.

“We can acknowledge that it exists but we don’t tell anyone what we do,” she said. “It’s a secret thing, but it’s really fun. We just don’t talk about it because we want it to be a special experience for the people who go through it, and it usually is.”

It’s more than potlucks and presentations every Sunday. For members, the community and friendship found at the cabin is treasured and can’t be found anywhere else.

“It has this feel of exclusivity because we’re so hard to get to,” Alexander said. “People are afraid of coming down here because they think we’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Like Alexander, Bonadonna enjoys the distance separating the cabin from Central Campus.

“I like going to the cabin because it’s like a getaway,” she said. “It’s a completely different world.”

Perhaps it’s because the cabin is a 25-minute walk from campus, secluded from the rest of the collegiate world. But the strength of friendships tying Les Voyageurs together is tangible.

An LV tenet is etched across the log mantle that reaches the very core of what Les Voyageurs is all about: “Here let the fire of friendship burn forever.” Above it hangs a framed cloth flag, with “Les Voyageurs” stitched neatly in bold block letters. This flag traveled with the first team of explorers to the South Pole — including a former member of the society, Laurence McKinley Gould.

As a student society at the University, it’s not surprising that there are several famous LV alums. Now deceased, former members included Mike Miskovsky, who went on to become a lawyer and worked closely to free prisoners in the Bay of Pigs incident of the 1960s; environmentalist and Earth Day pioneer Harold Jordahl; and Red Berenson, the current coach of the Michigan hockey team.

Just like home

Seated before the crackling fire, it’s hard to tell whether Alexander’s face is lit by the flicker of flames lapping at logs or her thoughts and memories of her fellow LVs.

“It’s like a family that once you have it you can’t imagine not being a part of it — you just gel,” Alexander said. “For some reason we attract people who are easygoing and interesting and we just all really like each other and support each other. It’s pretty warm.”

Along with friendship, eternal love for the outdoors is central to the society.

But Alexander noted that Les Voyageurs is not a backpacking club. Social gatherings around the fire, sitting around at the dinner table and a strong sense of brotherhood and sisterhood distinguish LVs from traditional backpacking groups.

Three active LVs, including Alexander, currently live in the one-bedroom bungalow — a room that takes up the entire second story, its walls lined with closets and bookshelves while mattresses cover the floor. Bunks often appear out of necessity when more members move in throughout the year.

Despite the lack of privacy everyone kind of has their own space — bookshelves serve as makeshift walls separating beds.

Though the cabin was empty at the time, special events attract active LVs over the Broadway bridge and through the woods to Habe Mills Pine Lodge.

Old Timers’ Night brings people back to the lodge, honoring Les Voyageur alums with dinner and usually involving a lot of storytelling. The Huron Hustle, a canoe race from the cabin, up the river to the dam and back, along with ski weekends in Northern Michigan are a few of the annual LV expeditions.

Bonadonna also mentioned Thanks-caving, a November event where LVs go caving for the weekend.

On a larger scale, The Paul Bunyan Ball has historically been a large event for Les Voyageurs.

“It was typically a square dance with callers,” said Jim McNair, an Ann Arbor native and Les Voyageurs alum who still attends meetings every Sunday. “We’d decorate the place in Paul Bunyan-style, with Babe the Blue Ox, a real plaid shirt event.”

Before Les Voyageurs became a co-ed society, the ball gave LV men an opportunity to bring women to society events. When McNair was an active in the early 1980s, the ball was held on campus in a Union ballroom, drawing a crowd of more than 200 students.

Now, the ball is somewhat smaller, but everyone still dresses up and has fun, Alexander said.

Last week, actives met to package the Les Voyageurs 2012 Annual. The little black book edited by the Keeper of the Legends is essentially a yearbook for the society and has recorded the last 100 years of the society’s projects, stories and updates.

Every year, current LVs send out annuals to more than 500 alums around the country and abroad.

This year’s edition includes updates from alums and actives, as well as poetry, stories and photos. Flipping to the back of the book, LVs can find a geographically organized directory of all living alums, the current actives and new members inducted that year.

“If you’re ever traveling, you can take this along with you and look people up in the back and see who’s in what city,” Alexander said.

Into the future

The 2012 annual includes significant updates on the cabin itself, which recently received $130,000 worth in renovations funded by LV alumni. Completed last summer, renovations included an expansion of the entire cabin to create more floor space accompanied by new hardwood floors, new heating systems and a brand new kitchen.

McNair was a huge component in the renovations. He is one of the two members on the society’s advisory board, overseeing the officers and providing support with upkeep of the lodge and ensuring the continuity of LV traditions.

When the lodge transitioned from serving solely as a meeting house to becoming a home for members, indoor plumbing and an indoor kitchen were added, but those were the exceptions — the cabin hadn’t really been updated since it was built in 1926, McNair said.

The alumni-funded renovations hearken back to the principles former LVs supported as actives, many years ago.

“Les Voyageurs is not something you do for four years and then graduate,” Bonadonna said. “You’re a voyageur for life.”

From financial contributions to tutorials on how to use a compass properly, LVs are always around.

McNair is still very active outdoors, and sees alums at many LV events who he has kept in touch with.

“We want to maintain a huge family,” Bonadonna said. “If you need something they’re there for you.”

The everlasting, idiosyncratic friendships specific to Les Voyageurs are felt when members come together, especially when alums are around, Alexander said.

“It’s one big friendship,” she said. “We’ll have people come back who graduated last year and also people who graduated in 1960 and we get along so well, it’s easy.”

Bonadonna has no doubt that she’ll keep in touch with fellow LVs and probably travel with them in the future.

“We have this thing that connects us,” she said. “And we always can come back to the cabin, it’ll always be here.”

After Alexander, Bonadonna and other Les Voyageurs graduate, the traditions that glue the society together will continue. They’ll come back as alumni for Old Timers’ Night and teach actives the skills they learned when they were at the University.

And just as they did before every meal together, they’ll sing the same song that’s been sung for more than 100 years.

Long live les voyageurs steadfast and true,
loyal to old Michigan and the yellow and blue.
And may these joyous hours we spend together,
prove as bright shining lights in darker hours.