The Rustic Life on Argo Pond
Dropping in on the Society of Les Voyageurs
by John C. Heider
From the June, 2018 issue
It was the antlers that piqued my interest in the house at 411 Longshore Dr.: the huge pair of sun-baked moose antlers mounted to the front of the two-story home looking out on the Argo Canoe Livery. "What kind of place would proudly display its wild side like that?" I wondered.
A carved wooden sign read "The Society of Les Voyageurs," with an image of an outdoorsman lugging a canoe on his back. When I asked around the neighborhood, the general consensus was that the place was some kind of co-op housing for adventurers. Beyond that it remained a mystery--until one lovely, warm day late last fall, when I saw a young man wearing a flannel shirt vigorously splitting wood in the backyard. I introduced myself and learned I'd just met the home's current "chief," Chase Varner.
At his invitation, I returned a few days later to meet the other residents. As I approached the well-worn pine-boarded front porch, I noticed four dented canoes on a trailer, an adobe kiln, and a fire pit next to the log pile and chopping block. Near the canoes were a foam-block archery target with lots of holes and two dozen ten-foot-long cedar logs. Whoever these people are, I thought, they're resourceful and adventurous.
I opened the screen door, which was framed by two repurposed canoe paddles, and stepped inside. Two six-foot lumberjack-style handsaws were mounted on nearby walls, along with a pair of antique wooden rawhide snowshoes and some longbows and their assorted arrows. Three guitars and a banjo were piled near an upright piano, atop which lay a taxidermy pheasant and a deer's jawbone.
Completing the Up North feel was a five-foot-tall stone fireplace with a cast-iron pot on a swing-out arm. It filled the home with an oak aroma. Over the mantel a carved log read, "Here let the fires of friendship burn forever."
Sleuthing online, I'd read in the U-M's Maize Pages that the Voyageurs are "the oldest
continually active student group on the University of Michigan campus," having been founded in 1907. Its first meetings were held in the Michigan Union, Varner told me. The home, called the Habe Mills Pine Lodge after an early member, was built in 1927.
Varner, twenty-one, shared the home with fellow students Thomas Chirayil, twenty-one, Lily Wilkie-Jones, nineteen, Tyler Neiss, twenty-one, and Andrew Pridemore, twenty-seven. The quintet shared a single room on the top floor of the home. "Privacy is pretty low here, but it keeps people friendly," laughed Varner. "It aligns with the Society's ideas of living together and sharing adventure."
Those cedar logs, I learned, were in the process of being hand-planed and set into the frame of a sauna being built on-site. The musical instruments were enlisted in frequent impromptu jam sessions. Two ten-foot tables could seat about two dozen Voyageur alumni and friends. Near the hearth, a pile of twenty hand-carved paddles made by the home's residents over the years sported their maker's initials or names, a testament to the group's history of watery adventures.
"Rent is from people who live here," Varner explained. The home is paid off, and residents' monthly payments go towards the home's utilities, property taxes, and food supplies.
Curious, I asked how the current residents learned about Les Voyageurs--the Habe Mills Lodge is well outside the usual student precincts. While some had heard about the group by word of mouth, Varner said he found out about it at the U-M's annual Festifall gathering of student groups. Still others were introduced via the once-a-year Paul Bunyan Ball, which brings back old adventurers and their guests for square dancing, a wide variety of food offerings (even occasionally wild game), and log-splitting and sawing competitions.
Sunday night potluck dinners feature speakers talking about outdoor pursuits or sharing knowledge of botany, biology, and geology. One night, Voyageur alumnus and ecology and evolutionary biology student Carson Brown presented information on forest ecology. At other gatherings, Neiss and guest John Hartert taught a gathering how to make sauerkraut, U-M professor Aline Cotel lectured on mitigating urban runoff through stream restoration, and evolutionary biologist Lang DeLancey told the Voyageurs about Michigan's prehistoric mastodon population.
"A personal goal of mine is to make this place a fulcrum point of outdoor living in Ann Arbor," said Varner. "We're associated with the U of M, but the idea is to be the hub of outdoor activity for all of Ann Arbor." The idea, he says, is to "teach others about your passion of the outdoors. Everyone has something they specialize in."
Wilkie-Jones, the sole female resident, demurred, insisting that you don't need tons of skills to fit into the Society of Les Voyageurs: "I don't really have a specialty, I just like being outside," she said. "It's a really fun group of like-minded people."
The Voyageurs pursue activities year round, leaving the Habe Mills Lodge to hit the waters in canoes, go for hikes both near and far, and cross-country ski in the winter. They recently tried spelunking in Kentucky. A few years back, forty-six intrepid Voyageurs went to Canada's Bruce Peninsula National Park for three days of camping, hiking, and canoeing. "Not everyone has experience in camping, so we have to keep that in mind and look after others," said Pridemore. "A good attitude is the most important thing," he added. "If they have a positive outlook, it makes up for lack of experience in the outdoors."
As students scatter to the four winds each spring, in some years only a single Voyageur has tended the lodge over the long summer. But though some members left this year, others moved in, and currently half a dozen are in residence.
New chief Dane Page says they're talking about a canoe trip to a vast wilderness that spans the border between Minnesota and Ontario, the Boundary Waters.
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