A Memorial Paddle for Ralph Frese, the Midwest canoe legend also known as “Mr. Canoe,” was held on the North Branch of the Chicago River on April 14. It was preceded by a ceremony attended by a large crowd of paddlers.
Speakers included Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Forest Preserve of Cook County Board, and Jack Snarr, Evanston resident and president of the Illinois Paddling Council (IPC).
Mr. Frese died Dec. 10, 2012, and the memorial was to be held on New Year’s Day, the day of the annual “Happy Canoe Year” paddle founded by Mr. Frese, but was rescheduled because of extreme cold.
Mr. Snarr said, “It was virtually an ideal Sunday for paddling, because there was no debris, and the water was high enough so you could get over the dams, but low enough so you could get under the bridges.”
The launch site evoked Seurat’s “Sunday in the Park” for paddlers – with boaters, dogs, umbrellas, paddlers in bright jackets and hats, and lines of kayaks and canoes, including voyageur canoes barging down to the shoreline. Paddlers in one voyageur canoe towed an empty canoe in memory of Mr. Frese.
Mr. Frese won numerous county, state and federal awards for his conservation work and the Legends of Paddling Award from the American Canoe Association.
He believed that getting people out on the rivers encouraged them to preserve and protect the waterways. Mr. Frese created the annual New Year’s Day “Happy Canoe Year” river trip, said Mr. Snarr.
“Twenty eight years ago he started a group going down the North Branch. It was a spontaneous thing, and over time, more and more people got involved; and then the IPC got involved to provide assistance. About four or five years ago the forest preserve provided support, and shuttle buses, portapotties, security at the put in, and refreshments at the take out.”
The section of the North Branch from Willow Road down to Dempster Street has been renamed The Ralph Frese River Trail.
Mr. Snarr said, “Ralph also believed in getting politicians out on the rivers. He would try to get forest preserve officials, county politicians, and state politicians out any chance he could, both on the North Branch and on the Des Plaines.”
The memorial ceremony featured Ms. Preckwinkle, General Superintendent Arnold Miller, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, and Marc Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Mr. Miller presented Rita Frese, wife of Ralph Frese, with a proclamation from Governor Pat Quinn honoring her husband.
“Gary Mechanic presented Toni Preckwinkle with a plaque making her an honorary member of the Paddler’s Patrol, which is the safety and rescue group that provided a rescue to her a few years back on New Year’s Day paddle when she fell in the water,” said Mr. Snarr.
Mr. Frese founded the Des Plaines River Marathon. “He started that 56 years ago this May. In order to give scouts an opportunity to use canoes, he conceived of this race. I think they only had 25 boats the first year, mostly scouts and scout leaders. It doubled the next year and in three years there were more than 100 boats. During the ’70s, entries had to be cut off at 1,000 boats, because it would take too long to get them down the river and it would be getting into evening,” said Mr. Snarr. This year the race is May 19.
Mr. Frese fostered an interest in the role that rivers and canoes played in history and the founding of Chicago. He was famous for his canoe- building, including replicas of voyageur canoes that sometimes reached 34 feet.
On the 300th anniversary of the Marquette and Joliet Expedition in 1973, Mr. Frese organized a 3,000-mile reenactment in period costume of Marquette and Joliet’s trip in replica birchbark voyageur canoes. Part of the reenactment took place at Lighthouse Beach. Marquette made reference in his diary to camping on Gross Point in 1673.
“He inspired so many people with different interests to apply those interests to paddlesport – whether it was voyageur canoes, building boats, cleaning up rivers or racing. That was a big contribution,” said Mr. Snarr.