Published June 15, 2009, 06:49 AM

Prison inmates turn canoe paddles into works of art

About 30 program participants will have their canoe paddles painted by inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud. Les Voyageurs provides teenagers the opportunity to camp and canoe for a month in central Manitoba and Ontario. The leadership program was founded and is directed by Fred Rupp, a biology teacher at Cathedral High School.

By: Amy Bowen, St. Cloud Times/Grand Forks Herald

Chase Peyton, 16, feels nervous about his monthlong trip with Les Voyageurs.

The St. Cloud Cathedral High School student worries about being away from home for so long, he said. He won’t have access to a cell phone and will be basically cut off from the outside world.

Comfort will come from an unlikely source — his canoe paddle.

Peyton is one of about 30 program participants who will have their canoe paddles painted by inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud.

Les Voyageurs provides teenagers the opportunity to camp and canoe for a month in central Manitoba and Ontario. The leadership program was founded and is directed by Fred Rupp, a biology teacher at Cathedral High School.

Inmates painters

Rupp has worked with the prison since 1984, providing inmates the opportunity to decorate paddles for students.

“These guys get very passionate about their work,” Rupp said. “They’re very, very good.”

A handful of inmates paint the paddles for students who do not feel comfortable decorating their own paddles. The inmates and students never meet, Rupp said.

Inmates can take anywhere from days to weeks to finish a piece, Rupp said.

Prison officials declined to comment about the program.

Peyton’s paddle was the first one completed before this summer’s trips. Peyton, an avid hunter, chose an image of a black lab hunting ducks. It reminded him of his dog, Dakota, he said.

The inmates take great pride in their work, Rupp said. The inmate wasn’t happy with the dog in the painting, Rupp said. But Rupp and Peyton gave nothing but praise.

“It looks better than the picture I had,” Peyton said.

Mark Magelssen, 16 and a St. Cloud Cathedral High School student, also had his paddle painted by an inmate. Magelssen asked the inmate to recreate a picture he took of a loon.

“It’s phenomenal,” Magelssen said. “I think it’s good for (the inmates) to do something for the community and help.”

Start 39 years ago

Les Voyageurs started 39 summers ago, Rupp said. About 90 teenagers from around central Minnesota will participate in one of two sessions, he said. The paddles play an important role in the program’s mission, he said.

“It’s a passion my wife and I share — to give young people a chance to learn more about themselves in a way only an extreme experience provides,” Rupp said.

The paddle is one of the only mementos the students bring back, along with a worn-out pair of boots and a choker necklace symbolizing teamwork, Rupp said.

The paddles can be found in offices and homes of former participants across the country, he said. He even heard of a former participant who has a paddle hanging up in her office on the West Coast.

“The paddles are very big deals,” Rupp said. “Everything on that paddle reminds them of the trip.”

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