By Eugene Buchanan
The late, venerable canoe historian Ralph Frese would be pleased. After being cancelled the last two years due to bad weather, one of the nation’s most ardent group of New Year’s Day paddlers is set to ring in their 30th anniversary by leaving the black-eyed peas simmering on the stove and bringing in the new year by paddling the Windy City’s North Branch of the Chicago River.
“It’s one of my favorite events,” says Toni Preckwinkle, president of Forest Preserves of Cook County, which organizes the event. “Despite the obvious challenges of gearing up on a cold New Year’s morning, we’re expecting hundreds of hardy folks. Paddling through wooded winter preserves is the perfect way to start the year with a fresh perspective.”
Helping whacko Chicagoans brave the elements to hit the waterway every New Year’s Day, the event was founded in 1985 by none other than famed canoe historian Frese, who owned and operated Chicagoland Canoebase. On peak years it draws more than 300 paddlers, and this year’s New Year’s Day Canoe Paddle will mark a whopping three decades of the annual, bone-chilling float. That this tradition is being still being carried on only cements the determination and wherewithal of Frese’s fellow Chicago-area paddlers.
The four-mile trip begins in Winnetka, east of the Edens, just north of the intersection of Willow Road and Forestway Drive. The trip ends at the Linne Woods Canoe Access. “We don’t have anything too unusual planned for the trip’s 30th anniversary, other than just to get back out on the river for this great day,” says co-organizer Don Parker, adding that there will be a short speaking program at 9 a.m. the morning of to commemorate the canoe trip, followed by a party afterward.
The free event is hosted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County with help from the Illinois Paddling Association and Prairie State Canoeists. The event’s participants all share the same goal of hitting the water in their canoes while most other people are hitting the couch.
Opened to experienced paddlers of all walks, the event is a ritual for countless canoeists from the Windy City not content to kick off the New Year watching football. The only caveats are that participants bring their own boats and PFDs and dress in appropriate paddlesports apparel (all participants get checked for proper clothing and equipment before launching). The event includes shuttles and a warm-up celebration afterward with hot beverages, a snack and fire. “It’s a great way to start the year off,” says Preckwinkle. “It can be a bit chilly sometimes, but that’s Chicago in the winter.”
Read about other New Year’s paddling traditions.