Ralph Frese

An empty canoe was towed down the Chicago River North Branch as a final symbolic trip. Photo: Karen Vaughan

Several hundred paddlers—many in traditional Voyageur costumes—celebrated the life of Ralph Frese with a 6-mile paddle down the Chicago River North Branch on Sunday, April 14. Frese passed away in December.

Frese will be remembered by many as “Mr. Canoe.” Claude Walker, senior policy writer in the office for the Illinois governor, recounted his favorite story with Frese, “I had the honor of paddling with him one icy New Year’s Day morning 10 years ago. I was about to take the plunge and buy a boat, so I asked Ralph, ‘what’s the difference between a canoe and kayak?’ He growled back, ‘Ya can’t pee from a kayak!'”

For 28 straight New Year's mornings, Frese led hard-core paddlers on a "Happy Ca-noe Year Paddle.”
The 2013 event was cancelled due to weather, so his friends gathered to remember his indomitable spirit, featuring a tribute by Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, a Proclamation by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn declaring it "Ralph Frese Day" and a moving "empty canoe" memorial.

Ralph Frese, of Niles, Illinois—one of the most influential paddlers in the world—was known as "Mr. Canoe"; and was among Illinois' leading conservationists and a fierce advocate for water trails, waterway protection and paddler safety. He was a pioneer in many ways and even looked the part during the 1973 re-enactment of the Joliet-Marquette voyage.

Frese was a tireless steward of and equally tireless storyteller about Illinois' waterways, earning a "Legends of Paddling" award from the American Canoe Association and a spot in the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame. He was the last active blacksmith in Chicago, operated the Chicagoland Canoe Base, designed and built countless canoes, and inspired generations of Boy Scouts and other Illinoisans to get outdoors and start paddling; and helped launch the Illinois Paddling Council, Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon (one of the world's longest-running paddling events), and New Year's Day Paddle on the Chicago River (on a stretch of the North Branch now called the Ralph Frese River Trail).

Frese mentored countless paddling enthusiasts and river conservationists to be engaged and involved, and to tackle any obstacles in the way of clean water, adequate access and free-flowing waterways. Hundreds of paddlers will honor Ralph Frese's memory today by journeying down the Chicago River with an "empty canoe" in tow. He loved being "admiral of his own navy", especially when his co-admiral—Rita Frese—paddled with him.

So I, Pat Quinn, Governor of the State of Illinois, do hereby proclaim April 14, 2013 as "Ralph Frese Happy Canoe Year" Day in Illinois in recognition of one great man who truly made a difference.

Ralph Frese

Ralph Frese's role in the reenactment of the Joliet-Marquette voyage is celebrated. Photo: Claude Walker