The University of Michigan’s ‘Society of Les Voyageurs’

by Rachel Pernick

Image Courtesy of Rachel Pernick.
Image Courtesy of Rachel Pernick.

The Society of Les Voyageurs remains perhaps the oldest continuously operating student organization at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.* Founded in 1907 (“when Pine was still King”) by students Elmer “Lindy” Lehndorff and Larry Larke, the club took inspiration from the French-Canadian coureur de bois and voyageurs of the North American fur trade. Perhaps the most potent elegy to these French-Canadian roots is the solemn bon chance wished to new members upon initiation. And, twice annually, members take a ten-person “war canoe” out on the Huron River. In a recent spring, we made it out to the Detroit River for a paddle.

Intrepid members of the Society of les Voyageurs on an outing on the Detroit River.
Intrepid members of the Society of les Voyageurs on an outing on the Detroit River. Photo courtesy of Rachel Pernick.
Members built the Habe Mills Pine Lodge from 1925-26 on a bit of property along the Huron River. Today the lodge, fondly known as “The Cabin,” sits surrounded by city park on all sides, adjacent to Argo Pond, a stretch of river between Barton and Argo Dams. The members, called “Actives,” host weekly “Sunday Feeds”– potluck dinners open to the public. Following feeds, programs are presented by club members or U-M faculty or community members on subjects of interest to outdoor enthusiasts. Notable programs include presentations on “The Greater Banana Slug,” “Huron River Watershed Aquatic Insects,” and “Friction Fires.”

Membership takes three forms: “Actives” are current U-M students, “Alums” are alumni of the society (and therefore, of the university), and “Associates” are members not affiliated with the U-M at time of initiation. In earlier days, the Department of Forestry served as a source pool for members. Now, with the dissolution of the department in 1988, members come from a variety of disciplines, but with common love and wonder for the Great Outdoors. Members go on trips of all sorts — canoeing, hiking, climbing, caving — across Michigan, the Midwest, and the country. Among these trips is the annual Ski Weekend up on Douglas Lake near Pellston, the activities of which always include cross-country skiing followed by evening sing-a-longs and abundant desserts. As per “A History of Les Voyageurs” written in 1957, “It was good medicine for the heart and soul to sit there and listen to the ‘middle-aged men’ sing old songs and hash over former days. It spurred every active member into renewed effort to keep the pace set by the alumnae.”

Select Actives take up residence at The Cabin, and Alums often stop by for a chat or a paddle. Following a renovation of The Cabin in 2012, an upstairs bathroom for residents put an end to unsavory shower encounters between resident Actives and visiting alumni. Many alumni keep tabs on society activities by way of the annual society yearbook, which includes a complete directory of all members.  Archives from the past century lay testament to a dynamic geography– “when 100 pound sturgeon were left by fishermen to rot upon the shore”– but steadfast ideals– “Intimate communion with Nature lifts you up above the petty things of life, enlarges your vision, ennobles you– makes you finer in every way.”

*The University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, founded in 1859, remains the oldest student organization on campus.

Rachel Pernick is a student at the University of Michigan and member of the Society of Les Voyageurs.

This article was made possible in part by contributions from the Navarre family in memory of Russell Navarre and from Dawn Evoe-Danowski. 

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