by Dennis Dalman
Bringing young people into the northern wilds for four summer weeks to endure exhausting physical and mental ordeals sounds cruel.
However, from those extreme exertions and challenges there gradually develops, as if by magic, a whole range of qualities: psychological and physical strengths, confidence, healthy interpersonal relationships, vital teamwork skills and an inner faith in what is important and what is not.
The program, dubbed “Les Voyageurs,” is headquartered in the Pine Point area of Sartell, right on the west bank of the Mississippi River. The organization is named after les voyageurs (“the travelers”), who were French-Canadian explorers during the North American fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.
During the past 50 years, Les Voyageurs program participants have been young people mostly from the greater St. Cloud area, including ones from St. Joseph, Sartell, Sauk Rapids and Waite Park.
Les Voyageurs was founded in 1971 by Fred Rupp, a biology teacher at Cathedral High School. Since then, more than 3,000 young people have participated in the rigorous program. Crews of teenagers would go north, camp, learn survival skills and paddle canoes on rivers and other waterways – anywhere from 250 to 450 miles of water travel, including portages (carrying canoes from one waterway to another).
The first years of the trips to the north were to the Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario and to an area east of Lake Winnipeg. Those eligible for the program must have completed the 10th grade and be juniors or seniors in high school. Starting in 1981, girls, too, were welcomed to the program.
Zach Fritz, 25, of St. Cloud, is the program director of Les Voyageurs and a related program called Far North. When he was a student at Cathedral High School, Fritz took his first Les Voyageurs Far North trip in 2013 when he and others went all the way to the Arctic Ocean. He has taken eight trips since then. Fritz earned a degree in environmental studies from St. John’s University, and during those college years he served as a Les Voyageurs guide for the trips.
In an interview with the Newsleader, Fritz explained how the program works.
This summer there are four trips planned – two into Canada (Quetico) and two in the United States (Boundary Waters area). The first of the trips will take place from mid-June to mid-July, the other from mid-July to mid-August.
There is a total of eight crews per summer, and each crew is comprised of anywhere from six to nine participants, both girls and boys.
Weeks before each trip, all crew members start to do a lot of prep work – studying maps, a first-aid course, preparing dried foods, gathering equipment, and more. Fritz helps with that planning and also takes care of all the logistics for the trip, trains the trip guides (many of whom are former Les Voyageurs participants). The students also learn vital hands-on skills like how to paddle a canoe and how to flip it and carry it.
The Far North program this summer will involve two crews and two trips – one to the Hudson Bay area, the other a canoe trip down the George River in Quebec. Far North is designed as a second-year program for those who made previous Les Voyageurs journeys. Some of the Far North trips last 50 or more days in remote places such as Alaska, the Arctic Ocean and other places in the wilds of northern Canada.
As program director, Fritz is on call 24-7 during trip times. He’s even able to dispatch search-and-rescue planes should a tragedy occur. Other emergency contacts are four on-call nurses, as well as Dr. Mark Halstrom of Williams Integracare Clinic, Sartell, who can be consulted long-distance immediately if a medical issue or injury should occur to participant(s). An avid outdoorsman, Halstrom is secretary of the Les Voyageurs Board of Directors.
The program participants and guides have access to satellite phones and plenty of emergency equipment.
Fritz said he derives immense satisfaction from Les Voyageurs and Far North programs.
“It’s fun to hear from alumni and how those programs helped them,” he said.
The trips can at times be grueling, but volunteers also have lots of fun through their teamwork camaraderie even under the most difficult physical and mental challenges.
Among the lessons and life skills absorbed/learned through the programs are these:
• Learning the basics of wilderness travel.
• Making decisions on what is best for the group rather than for oneself.
• Accepting personal limitations while enhancing personal strengths.
• Acquiring leadership qualities.
• Polishing communication skills under diverse and sometimes extreme conditions.
• Developing the strength and skills to persevere under extreme conditions.
The following words from Les Voyageurs website, encapsulates what the program is all about:
“Challenge and stress are essential elements of true and meaningful growth. By experiencing the inevitable failures of expedition life, the young person is able to distinguish between failure and defeat. He/she learns that failure is not a measure of a person but rather a temporary obstacle which, with a new plan and renewed resolve, will be overcome. At the same time, each young person learns that what may be a deficiency for one may be an asset for another.”
Anyone interested in find out more about Les Voyageurs can visit its website, which has lots of photos and videos. The web address is www.les-voyageurs.org.