Sartell, Minn. — Fred Rupp has launched more than 3,000 high school canoeists into the Canadian wilderness since 1971, when he guided the first eight-man expedition for what would become Les Voyageurs.
The outdoor leadership program was inspired by six months Rupp spent in Alaska with explorer Maynard Miller of America’s first successful Mount Everest expedition.
“I’d camped before, but this was camping at altitude and on glaciers,” said Rupp, who joined the crew by way of an exploration award from The Explorers Club of New York and the Boy Scouts. “I was the only member of the expedition that didn’t have mountaineering experience. I struggled. I was homesick. I was over my head a lot of times. When I got home, I realized how profoundly that had changed my view of things and who I was and my goals.”
He wanted to do the same for other kids — through canoeing.
This summer, Les Voyageurs crews (five boys’ and five girls’) will embark on monthlong expeditions from Ontario and Manitoba. One more will launch from the Northwest Territories. Rupp, 66, a boys cross-country coach and retired biology teacher, drives the bus. He steers the training, equipment and finances. Fourteen alumni lead the crews.
At Les Voyageurs’ base on the Mississippi River, Rupp discussed adventure and leadership. Edited excerpts follow.
On a good adventure
I think the unknown is the adventure part. You kind of have an idea. But you don’t really know. Is it going to rain, not rain? Is it going to be pretty, not pretty? Am I going to get lost or not lost? That’s the whole idea of an expedition as opposed to an organized trip.
When they plan their route, they don’t know if that line on a map has water in it or not. They hope it does. But if it doesn’t, then they have to come up with an alternative. They don’t know if that stretch between this lake and that lake has a trail connecting it. And if it doesn’t, how passable is it? Will it take hours or days? That’s what I think makes an adventure.
If it’s all easy, then it’s not really leadership. Then you’re just following a path. On trail, we allow failure. (But) we won’t allow errors that cause safety issues. We allow them to get lost. If they don’t navigate, then they get lost. That way they learn. We allow them to make decisions like: “I’m going to leave all my clothes hanging in the trees tonight.” And then it rains. In a controlled setting like a team, you don’t let that happen. And Mom for sure doesn’t let that happen.
Success on the trail
The most successful Voyageurs are the ones that take care of everybody else first. They make sure that the other person has the biggest chunk of food or the lighter load or the better sleeping space or the drier spot to sit. The logic is that you have eight people taking care of you.
Team vs. crew leadership
For a long time we considered sports to be a rite of passage for kids. But in reality, those are adult-controlled situations. A rite of passage was designed for a young person to become an adult, to come up with their own thoughts, their own expression of who they are. With Voyageurs, kids are in charge of a lot of the program. We teach, but then they’re allowed to fail or succeed.
On pushing past ‘can’t’
In every sport there’s a point where you say, “I can’t. I can’t get to the ball. I can’t catch that person. I can’t. I can’t.” So you stop. You probably could push beyond that if you really wanted to, but we have this stop point. On trail, you can’t stop because you have to come home. You have to finish the trip. So you have a new definition of what’s possible for you.
Wessel is a St. Cloud-based freelancer, on Twitter @AnnWessel.