By Conor Mihell
Photos by Jim Newberry
Except for paddling, there wasn't much that could keep Ralph Frese away from his canoe shop in northwest Chicago. This fall, while undergoing regular morning treatments for cancer, Frese still spent his afternoons at the Chicagoland Canoe Base, the well-known retail outlet, outfitter and canoe-building workshop he established in the 1960s at his father's old forge. Although he wasn't building or restoring canoes, the creative passions that were his life's work, Frese was content telling stories and spending time in what he proclaimed to be "the most unusual canoe shop" in the U.S., which, in reality, was more like a hall of fame of American paddlesports.
Frese was a fourth-generation blacksmith, and though he was skilled in the trade of his forefathers, that all changed when he fell helplessly in love with canoes. It all started with a canvas-covered kayak on the Illinois River when Frese was a teenager; by the time he was 24 Frese was mass-producing canoes for his local Boy Scout troop; and in 1967 he paddled voyageur canoe replicas from Chicago to the World's Fair in Montreal. Frese became known for the graceful lines of his Canadienne canoe, a speedy tandem that was produced by the Old Town Canoe Company. He also pioneered the construction of truly authentic birchbark replicas, using a laborious process with fiberglass, split cedar and a complex screening process that drew on his knowledge of building the real thing. Equally significant was his role in popularizing "big canoes," 20- to 30-plus-footers simulating the crafts paddled by the voyageurs of the fur trade.
Everything in Frese's life could be tied to the canoe. He was passionate about history, particularly Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, the French explorers who traveled by water to establish Chicago on a 1673 voyage down the Mississippi. In 1973, Frese caught the paddling community's attention with a 3,000-mile reenactment in replica canoes and period costumes. Frese was also a staunch environmentalist, battling for the preservation of the Midwestern rivers around his home, including the Fox and Illinois. In 2007 a portion of his beloved Chicago River was renamed the Ralph Frese River Trail.
Frese saw the semi-urban rivers of the Midwest as a perfect jumping off point for new canoeists. He created the Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon in 1958, an 18.5-mile recreational race that has annually attracted an average of 1,000 paddlers. He also organized an annual New Year's Day paddle on the Chicago River. For his contributions to paddlesports, Frese became the first recipient of the American Canoe Association's Legends of Paddling award in 1994.
“The last couple of weeks I have been told so many times about all the people whose lives I have changed—people who have made [canoeing] a part of their life," said Frese in an interview with Canoe & Kayak in November. "It's very gratifying to know that people are listening.
"I'm kind of proud of the scratch I made in history."
Ralph Frese passed away on December 10, in a hospice overlooking the Chicago River's East Branch. He was 86 years old. His family and friends have set up a blog to commemorate Frese's life.
Watch a video of Frese discussing the etymology of the word "canoe" and its role in North American history: