The canoeing world lost a true pioneer with the passing of Chicago’s Ralph Frese on Dec. 12, 2012, at age 86 from cancer complications.
From his Chicagoland Canoe Base shop on the Northwest Side, Frese, a fourth-generation blacksmith by trade, introduced thousands of people to paddling by founding events, building replica canoes and more. His contributions were such that he received the Legends of Paddling award from the American Canoe Association.
Frese started several long-running paddling events, including the Des Plaines River Marathon begun in 1958 — the second oldest continuously held canoe race in the United States — and Chicago’s wildly popular New Year’s Day Canoe Paddle, now entering its 28th year. The event draws hundreds of paddlers to travel a four-mile stretch of the Chicago River’s North Branch every New Year’s.
According to the DesPlaines River Canoe & Kayak Marathon website, “The 55-year-old annual Marathon was but one of many contributions of Ralph to fostering a quest for outdoor adventure, athletic competition, Voyageur history, canoe design and construction, metalworking and environmental responsibility in his 86 years with us. We are grateful for these contributions and in particular for his ability to attract, inspire and enthuse an ever-growing cadre of like-minded supporters, of both professional and amateur backgrounds, to follow in his footsteps.”
Frese was also active in supporting local river trail efforts. A section of the North Branch of the Chicago River from Willow Road in Northfield to Dempster Street in Morton Grove was designated the Ralph Frese River Trail by the forest preserve district. In the early 1950s, Frese started the Illinois Paddling Council, with the goal of establishing the Fox River as a designated wilderness river.
Frese, whose first boat was a canvas kayak he bought for $15 when he was 14 years old, was also well known for building replica birch bark canoes out of fiberglass, including several for display at Voyageurs National Park, marquee reenactment expeditions and even Boy Scout expeditions.
Walking the walk, he also participated in several re-enactments of early voyages himself, by such long-ago explorers as Robert de LaSalle, Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, building boats for those trips as well.