Jacob Fife, '23
I love weird people—makes sense considering my dad was a hippie and my mom’s a red-head. Voyageur people, and I mean this in the best way possible, are weird. Some of the earliest American climbers—shirtless potheads that were just a tad crazy—were the pinnacle of spiritual freedom. While the students and coaches in the Voyageur program lack these qualities, freedom still permeates throughout. Perhaps, I should be clear: when I say “freedom,” I’m not referring to free-soloing up a fifty-foot wall with more confidence than Alex Honnald. I simply mean that Voyageur provides students with the freedom of the outdoors, the strangely stress-relieving sensation of tumbling over in a kayak or being stuck on a tall wall with the sole purpose of moving upward, and the freedom of expressing yourself.
The Voyageur program at St. Albans School began following a trip that Canon Martin, Headmaster of STA from 1949 to 1997, took to France. There, Mr. Martin joined a group of students who were participating in an outdoor excursion program. His experiences with this group inspired him to create a similar program at STA. Originally, Mr. Martin based the program almost directly off of the French group, even having the spelling of the program be the French “Voyageur” rather than “Voyager.” While the program has changed quite a bit since its founding, including the addition of the famous rock wall at the National Cathedral School’s athletic center, Mr. Martin’s mission that “there is a need for us to recapture an understanding and appreciation of nature, while experiencing the physical and mental challenges of outdoor activity” is maintained to this day. Whether through climbing outdoors at Carderock or kayaking on the Potomac River, appreciating nature is at the forefront of the Voyageur experience.
I first wanted to join Voyageur because my sister did it. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about climbing yet, and paddling was out of the picture due to unfading fears related to my subpar performance in the fifth grade Potomac River trip. I flipped over twice. Regardless, something attracted me to the program. For starters, I consider myself pretty good or, at least, decent at climbing. Being that I’m also a human being, I enjoy activities that I’m good at doing. Secondly, the Voyageur community is unlike any other. Calling heavy, quick breaths the “David Hla breathing technique,” giving surfer-bro names to kayakers who have successfully surfed on a rapid, and having long-winded debates on if some action can qualify as gross negligence—all are great customs and traditions of the Voyageur community.
These aspects contribute to my feeling of separation between school and Voyageur. Voyageur’s activities and the strangeness of its members allow for an escape from anything school-related. I like to describe climbing as meditative. For some reason, my mind is most at ease when I’m climbing up a fifty-foot wall. Perhaps, it’s because I only have one real objective: to go up. A typical response to when a climber in Voyageur asks, “What do I do?” is for Coach Velosky or Coach Giles to say, “go up.” While this advice might not, seemingly, be the most helpful, it is one-hundred percent true. Going upwards is the best thing to do when climbing, and, in top-rope climbing, the only thing you can do other than falling.
The freedom of Voyageur is best demonstrated by rolls in kayaking. Many will describe kayaking as stressful or unfun before learning to roll. Before learning to roll, flipping over in your kayak either means uncomfortably waiting underwater for someone to rescue you or releasing yourself from your boat and swimming it to shore. Both aren’t very fun. However, the ability to flip yourself back over through performing a roll improves the experience of kayaking exponentially. With the assurance of your roll, you achieve the freedom to try crazier activities like surfing—an activity that we kayakers like to refer to as “shredding the gnar.” Likewise, improving at climbing opens up the freedom to complete other, harder climbs.
To close this article, I’d like to tell a quick story. A couple of days ago, I was walking to an office hours meeting for the Spring Break Voyageur trip. While walking down the plentiful stairs of the NCS athletic center, I paused to watch Coach Velosky and Coach Giles installing a brand-new blue climb on the wall while listening to the song “First Day of My Life” by Bright Eyes. This moment exemplifies everything I find so great about Voyageur. The excitement of embarking on new climbs, coaches dangling mid-air with a bucket of holds and a wrench, listening to music while doing group abs (called “grabs”)—just a bunch of stuff weirdos do in their natural habitat.