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About Campus: Where the wilderness lovers are

Illustration by Laura Garavoglia Buy this photo

BY SAM WAINWRIGHT

Published November 10, 2009

When you picture a map of Ann Arbor in your head, what does it look like? As a student, it probably has the Diag in the middle, surrounded by memories of freshman year (the Hill), weekends with your parents (Main Street) and football Saturdays (South State Street) — with North Campus somewhere a few hundred miles northeast. But what do you picture directly north of Central Campus?

Nothing. It’s no-man’s land.

Some students, though, call the no-man’s land near the Huron River canoe rental home.

At the end of Longshore Drive, there is a cabin with a wide wooden deck, a big swing and a roaring fire, sitting peacefully on the Huron River. It’s the home of the Society of Les Voyageurs, which, according to their website, is a “diverse group of folks who share a central interest in the out-of-doors and whose life's work (or life's play) will focus on things environmental.”

You may never have heard of Les Voyageurs, but they have been here at the wooded fringe of the University for over 100 years. Founded in 1907, the Society claims (with the possible exception of Men’s Glee Club) to be the oldest fraternal organization on campus. Built by its members in 1925, the cabin has been the home of the society ever since.
Originally a sort of social club for students in the Forestry School — back when the University had a Forestry School — the Society of Les Voyageurs has remained a meeting place for students with a passion for the outdoors.

Described by former member Stephen Bridenstine as “ranging from hunters to hippies and everything in between,” the membership of Les Voyageurs is united by a shared appreciation for nature and outdoor activities. The LVs (as they call themselves) go on many excursions around the country, including ice climbing in Michigan, rafting in West Virginia and backpacking in Wyoming.

While anyone can participate in Les Voyageurs events, the society itself is made up of an inner circle of no more than 20 active members who recruit new members through a secret “tapping” process.

Of the 11 current members, five live in the society’s home base on the Huron River, which members affectionately (and accurately) refer to as The Cabin. These students, all male, take their devotion to the wilderness to another level, opting to live a 20-minute walk from campus.

“There’s always a circle of people willing to help you experience the outdoors,” cabin resident Joe Rhoades said. “I’ve got a canoe shed at my house. The river’s right there.”

For many Les Voyageurs, it is the cabin itself that drew them to the group — and it’s easy to see why. Well off the beaten campus path, the cabin exudes an almost mythical aura. Surrounded by ancient pines supporting a few well-worn hammocks, the cabin is hard to find even when you know where to look, which for some members is part of the attraction.

I was invited to a weekly feast that has supposedly happened every Sunday for more than a century. Seated at one of two long wooden tables and digging into huge dishes of slow-cooked meat, homemade macaroni and cheese, and a veritable smorgasbord of other potluck dishes, I was treated to a meal that gave Mom’s home cooking a run for her money. That’s part of what keeps the members of the society and their many guests coming back week after week.
“It’s a totally different world,” LSA senior Ariela Borkan said.

Repeatedly described as a place to escape from the constricting dorm lifestyle, many of the LVs were first drawn to the cabin and the society by a desire to find a different kind of community than is typically offered at college, LV President Gillian Wener said.

Suffice to say, life in the cabin is far from typical.

For one thing, there’s a giant wood-burning sauna, by itself the size of your typical Markley double, next to a small egg-producing chicken coop. And it’s not likely you had an 18-foot long canoe in South Quad.

The cabin itself is relatively small, with a fireplace, couches, two long dining tables and a kitchen on the first floor. Upstairs is one large room that serves as the communal bedroom for cabin residents. The number of computers surprised me, as I was expecting kerosene lamps. While it is true that the city actually forced the society to install plumbing in the cabin in the 1950's, the presence of technology is to be expected — many Les Voyageurs are engineers and geologists.

“Most of us end up taking very environmental courses,” Rhoades said. “I’m majoring in geology, because I wanted to work outside. I looked at majors and said what’s the major where I can be in the field one week out of four.”

However, technology doesn’t stop them from being a group of outdoorsmen and women to the core. In my short time at the house, I managed to hear two separate stories of skinning animals in the field (a deer and a coyote, to be precise).

Dried pelts are not the least of the house’s rustic décor. For being so small, the cabin is amazingly full of tangible history. The mantelpiece is a rather sizeable tree trunk with the group’s mantra, “Let the fires of friendship burn forever,” emblazoned onto its face. Above that hangs a Les Voyageurs flag that was taken to the South Pole by the first American expedition. There are walrus tusks on the bookshelf, a 100-year-old mandolin upstairs and handwritten cookbooks used for the Sunday dinners held in the early 1900’s.

Even the trees in front of the house are relics of history. Planted right after the 1927 construction of the cabin, the Les Voyageurs still tell the story of how the three Douglas firs were actually pilfered from a Forestry School plot. Perhaps in a furtive nod of approval, they were caught in the act by a well-known Forestry professor who declared, “Well, if you’re gonna plant ‘em, plant ‘em straight!”

Current Les Voyageurs don’t just preserve their rustic past — they are actively engaged in embracing and continuing it. One member is building an old-fashioned clay oven on the side of a house. At any given time, another might be carving a canoe paddle using the same Depression-era tools as the society’s founders or tapping the trees for maple syrup.

Compared to crumbling student houses and microwave dinners on campus, the cabin on the shores of the Huron really does seem like a completely different world.