Celebrating 70 Years of Camp Voyageur

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The triangle rings, followed by a familiar voice echoing through the trees, beckoning you: “Rise and shine, it’s a great day in the Northwoods!” Soon thereafter the ringing of the bell invites you and your cabinmates to the Mess Hall for hot cereal and pancakes. Your buddy from Cabin Eight walks with you down the wooded path under the towering pine and birch trees wearing his new red toque, eyes brimming with excitement as he recounts for the fourth—and not the last—time his trip stories and how he sterned and carried a canoe for nine days on his trip to the Grand Portage.

The rugged curriculum and program that Camp Voyageur founder Charlie Erdmann created in order to “make better people” has stood the test of time. One needs only to spend a couple of minutes chatting with a Voyageur alumnus—from any generation—to feel the profound impact that just a few short summers spent at Camp has on anyone. Recently Voyageur alumni and friends banded together to raise $186,410 to help Camp recover from the 2020 hiatus due to Covid-19. As Camp Voyageur approaches its 70th summer, we celebrate its enduring mission cultivated by the Erdmann family and friends.

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It all began in the 1950s. After years of attending and working at summer camps and dreaming of starting his own camp one day, Charlie, and his wife Mim, purchased a fishing outpost on Farm Lake and founded Camp Voyageur. Charlie’s charisma and educational ingenuity combined with Mim’s logistical aptitude—calculating, communicating, and coordinating selflessly behind the scenes—lead to further developments of Camp’s program and infrastructure, and in the 1960s, Camp’s program changed to include more extensive trips and off-the-grid exploration. Charlie was living his dream and the Erdmanns added a few kids of their own to Voyageur’s roster. Camp hit the big time in the 1970s, building more cabins and courts for their growing enrollment. Then, after 28 summers of living with family and friends on their beloved peninsula and directing Camp, Charlie and Mim decided to step away and lease the property and camp.

But Voyageur green is the color of Erdmann blood, so in 1984 brother-sister team John and Deb Erdmann reopened Camp, and while it was run by new names, it had the same Voyageur spirit, featuring a dynamic in-camp and wilderness tripping program into the Boundary Waters and beyond, alongside new program additions like hiking and visits to local Ely educational centers. Then, with the development of the Internet, Voyageur saw a web of possibilities in the 1990s, with campers coming in from other countries, digital marketing, and new possibilities made possible with a website. Camp Voyageur proved it could modernize—digitize—and still maintain what made it such a special, rugged place. Voyaging into the next millennium, the 2000s were marked by a growth of in-camp programs featuring quirky characters and elaborate role-playing coalescing in multi-day mysteries and games. They also added kayaking the Apostle Islands to the wilderness tripping program. By leveraging technology to promote its program, Camp proved to be a timeless capsule in the 2010s, as growing alongside its burgeoning online media output was its draw as a screen-free outdoor experience, a rustic oasis in a media-saturated world. As Camp readies for its 70th summer, the allure of its program and the experiences it provides are perhaps stronger than ever before.

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The rich and vibrant history of Camp Voyageur is one of tradition, perseverance, and mystique. Charlie’s spirit can still be felt, over 37 years since he passed the torch to his children John, Deb, and Vicki. His larger-than-life persona reverberates throughout the peninsula in Camp’s program, legends (“Did he really strike out Babe Ruth?”), the lifelong dedication his family has shown to his mission, and the fundamentally unchanged 26 acres of boreal forest and ancient bedrock that Camp Voyageur sits upon. Seven decades later, the Spirit endures. Thank you to all who have been apart.

Turning on your headlamp, you eagerly settle in to read the new book your mom sent you when you hear the squeak and subsequent slam of the sauna door; it must be a trail-worn counselor hitting the rocks one last time before showering and crawling into bed. You hear loons chattering happily and it sounds like they’re right outside the cabin, but you know they have a nest back by the archery range. You read a few pages of your book before drifting off to sleep, dreaming of blueberry scones and buying a new bone-handled knife.

How has Camp Voyageur impacted your life? Let us know in the comments section!