Goodbye to Chicago’s Mr. Canoe

Early Monday morning, Ralph Frese, Chicago’s ‘Mr. Canoe,’ passed away at 86 after a battle with cancer.

The fourth-generation blacksmith, master craftsman, historian, and conservationist owned a canoe shop at Narragansett and Irving Park Road on Chicago’s Northwest Side called the Chicagoland Canoe Base.

A couple centuries ago, Chicago was a canoe portage between the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, and no Chicagoan did more than Frese to celebrate the the canoe and proselytize its importance and majesty.

“The canoe is responsible for more geographical knowledge of North America than the horse, the covered wagon or any other method of conveyance,” Frese once said. “The canoe was here in the beginning and is the only watercraft ever designed by the ingenuity of man that has not outlived its usefulness.

Chicagoland Canoe Base was originally the Frese family blacksmith shop. As a volunteer Boy Scout leader, Frese built canoes for his troop at the shop, and when he inherited it after his father’s death he transformed it into Chicago’s preeminent destination for local canoe enthusiasts.

In 1958, Frese founded the Annual Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon, an 18-and-a-half mile race that takes place each May to draw attention to an endangered stretch of the river. It is now the second-oldest such event in the United States and one of the largest.

Fifteen year later, Frese conceived of and produced a four-month long reenactment of the 300th anniversary of the Marquette–Jolliet expedition. He crafted replicas of the birch bark canoes in his shop and arranged for the filming of the 3,000-mile voyage.

In 1985, Frese and his wife, Rita, began a tradition of paddling down the upper Chicago River through local forest preserves on New Year’s Day.  Today, hundreds converge on this stretch of river on January 1, now dedicated as the Ralph Frese Water Trail by the Cook County Forest Preserve district commissioners.

Ralph Frese, we salute you.

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