Article and all photographs by Seth Arkin. Originally published on SethSaith.com.
“In canoeing, we have the only trail in nature that leaves no trace of our passing.”
With this thought-provoking statement, one of many insights imparted during an engaging and educational conversation, Ralph Frese, longstanding proprietor of the Chicagoland Canoe Base, cast a light on two of his enduring passions–canoeing and environmental preservation–while obliquely referencing a third: history.
But although the aches left by 85 years of arduous and inspiring activity have curtailed the personal paddling days of the man widely known as “Mr. Canoe,” with his passion for our waterways and our world Frese undeniably continues to blaze indelible trails.
Perhaps that’s why when Chicago’s Steinmetz High School celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2009 and devoted space in its program to two of its notable alumni–both from the class of 1944–Hugh Hefner got a half-page and Ralph Frese got a full one.
Yet while the numerous awards and honors he has received–many of which are listed here–certainly serve as a testament to Mr. Canoe’s impressive legacy, even more powerful proclamations are those of a personal nature, as I observed first-hand during the three hours I spent with Frese a day before his 85th birthday on September 22nd.
But first a little history…
Although Ralph Frese, now a Niles resident, could be found day-in, day-out at 4019 N. Narragansett in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood for roughly the last 56 years, first as a blacksmith in his father’s shop, which dates back to the late ’30s–“We were professional chiselers,” Ralph shared, simultaneously being literal and glib–and running the Canoe Base since sometime in the ’60s, I was oblivious to his and his shop’s existence until about 2 months ago.
A friend of mine had recently bought a used SUV and needed bars put on top to accommodate a folding boat. He knew of Frese’s shop from years of seeing its unique facade just north of Irving Park Rd., but had never patronized it until we stopped in on a Saturday.
Along with selling and renting canoes and kayaks, including some hand-crafted by its owner, and carrying a boatload (pun intended) of accessories–oars, life jackets, clothing, maps, etc.–Chicagoland Canoe Base is the Midwest’s only custom installer of Yakima bars. And though my pal’s Santa Fe didn’t require any custom holes drilled, Ralph personally handled the install as part of the sales price. Which was fortunate as it saved my friend & I three hours of blood & turmoil in attempting to do so ourselves.
It was instantly apparent that the CCB’s website claim to be “The most unusual canoe shop in the U.S.” would largely ring true even without the word “canoe.” And much of the uniqueness is embodied by Ralph Frese himself.
Which he knows causes a bit of a conumdrum as he seeks to sell the business and retire. In fact, a story I found about Frese from 2007 revealed his desire to find a buyer for the Chicagoland Canoe Base.
“That’s the problem with having something this special,” he opined. “I see it as an opportunity for some young entrepreneur who wants to carve a niche in this world. Like I did.
“Someone could buy the property and business, or just the business, or just the inventory. And I’m not leaving the area, so I could give the new owner some help.”
Which brings me back to Ralph Frese’s proudest accomplishment, inspiring others
Just as soon as I sat down to talk to Ralph in the office of his store–housed in a building that got its start as a 300-seat silent movie theater and subsequently served a craftsman who “built airplanes in here” before Carl Frese took it over–a young woman walked in and said she wanted to rent a canoe.
As this is a core of the CCB’s business, Ralph was certainly happy to oblige her, with generous accommodation. A canoe rental is $50 per day, and though it was only about 2:30pm on Wednesday, Ralph told her she didn’t have to bring it back until Friday. The rental included oars, life jackets and seat cushions, and, well, installation. I helped Ralph carry a canoe to the lady’s car and lift it over the roof, where Ralph strapped it down.
It turned out that the woman was from Ohio, in town due to her husband attending a trade show at McCormick Place, and with a son waiting in the backseat. The kid couldn’t stop smiling when I pointed out that he had a boat over his head.
Back in the shop as Ralph rang up the transaction and gave her tips about where to launch–he initially suggested the Linne Woods Forest Preserve at Dempster St. in Morton Grove (a sign marking the “Ralph Frese River Trail” is nearby) but after learning she’d be picking her husband up from McCormick Place before they could start canoeing, he cited the Clark Park boat launch where Addison St. crosses over the Chicago River–Ralph made a point of telling the woman about The Grove in Glenview, because he thought her young son would get a kick out of seeing the historic nature preserve.
And that in a nutshell–even more than canoeing itself and more specifically than environmental preservation or history–is seemingly Ralph Frese’s principal passion: helping others, especially young people, gain an appreciation of nature.
In 1940, at age 14, Ralph got his first boat, a canvas kayak built by a neighbor kid in shop class and sold by the boy’s father after the son joined the Marines. Using a bike trailer and hitch he built in his dad’s blacksmith shop, Ralph would ride 15 miles to go fishing in the Skokie Lagoons.
In the late ’50s, in the first of two 30+ year marriages, Ralph followed his father-in-law’s passion for working with the Boy Scouts. Wanting to take the kids out canoeing, he began building canoes in an empty portion of the shop. After initially building 6, and then a dozen, canoes for his troop, word got around, and Ralph wound up building somewhere between 400-600 canoes for local Boy Scouts.
Wanting to further get scouts passionate about canoeing, in 1958 Ralph Frese founded the Des Plaines River Canoe & Kayak Marathon, which had its 54th annual race this past May.
This passion for inspiring others to become involved with canoeing explains why, when I asked him what made him proudest of all his accomplishments and awards, Ralph spoke of a local school teacher who had come into his shop one day.
“After I told him about all the trails he could be exploring, he got so interested he wound up working for the American River Conservation Council, ultimately becoming its President. Now he’s working for the National Forest Service, which oversees 30 million acres of wildlands and 119 wild & scenic rivers,” relayed Ralph.
“I’m proud of what he accomplished.”
Ralph also cited another disciple who became “river-oriented” because of his influence and went on to head the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Living proof of Ralph’s lasting influence wasn’t hard to find
While I was at the Chicagoland Canoe Base talking to Ralph in September, not only did a woman come in to rent a canoe and a friend of Ralph’s come by to discuss photos of a historic Nordic boat taken on a recent trip, but when I ventured through the adjacent workshop to find the restroom, I encountered a guy shaving wood in the proximity of a birch bark canoe-in-progress.
The man, a high school science teacher named Richard Gross, was a teenager when he first met Ralph. Along with a number of other teens imbued with a passion for history and the outdoors, Rich accompanied Ralph in researching and re-enacting René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle‘s pioneering expedition from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico. According to Gross, their 6-month trek in 1976–which came 3 years after Ralph and others, including one of Gross’ teachers, re-enacted the Joliet/Marquette expedition on its 300th anniversary–took a year of preparation and the building of six birch bark canoes.
All these years later, Gross is still building canoes, regularly stopping in to see Frese and trying to inspire the kids he teaches.
“I credit the whole thing to Ralph. If he hadn’t wanted to involve people, I wouldn’t have wanted to get involved,” Gross shared. “I have to pass it on. I have to ‘involve’ the next generation of people.”
Tickled at the admiration being shared right in front of him, and directly with him–Gross and a pal had just given Frese a new power drill they insisted was “not a birthday present” as such had been deemed taboo–Ralph offered, “I’ve enjoyed all the years. People who come in [to the store and workshop] are doers; they’re interesting people to know.
“They’ve expanded my whole world and provided an education for me.”
In fact, Ralph Frese and those he’s inspired through his myriad journeys are not only avid students of history, occasionally they actually re-write it.
For over 300 years, the site of Fort Crevecoeur, established by LaSalle and Henri de Tonti, was presumed to be near present day Peoria, Illinois (which has a suburb called Creve Coeur). But through a thorough examination of LaSalle’s letters and documents, Rich Gross was able to establish that Fort Crevecoeur was sited about 80 miles down the Illinois River at what is now Beardstown, IL.
So not only has Ralph Frese helped influence the future, his influence has helped change the past
Speaking to what Ralph has meant, Rich Gross noted the impossibility of summing it up succinctly, but said, “He’s been the focal point in bringing so many issues out of the back and into the front of people’s minds. The Chicago River used to be uninhabitable; now there are over 90 species of fish. That’s due to people like Ralph.”
Although his 85th birthday is now a few weeks past, when I talked to him the day before it, Ralph Frese was planning to celebrate it with his wife Rita and several friends at his favorite restaurant–and one of mine–Kappy’s in Morton Grove.
Beyond wanting to sell down some of his inventory–“I really should learn to sell stuff on eBay”–and hoping to find a like-minded buyer for the Canoe Base, Ralph is hoping to do a lot more writing.
Long an avid writer–you can see his fine tribute to fellow canoeist on the Illinois Paddling Council home page–Ralph extended our visit well past his shop’s closing time with tales of commemorative canoe trips involving notable politicians and Pocohontas (of the Disney on Ice variety).
On a more serious note, he mentioned how he had been enlisted to build canoes for a youth center, and how by fostering canoe trips for troubled kids, he had seen their angry resistance turn into enriching collaboration. “I can sum up the success of those programs in one word,” he said. “Love.”
It sounds a bit silly for me, having spent all of about 5 hours in the company of Ralph Frese, to try to neatly summarize his life and achievements. But it’s abundantly clear that Ralph loves what he does, and has done, would love for you to discover, and share, the joy of canoeing–“The canoe has always been a symbol of romance, adventure and exploration, especially in this region,” he conveyed. “It’s affordable, and parents can use the canoe as a learning tool, to expose kids to geography, history, nature, the environment”–and has enjoyed the love, admiration and appreciation of untold masses that he has inspired and influenced, directly or not.
Though he’s not planning on going anywhere for awhile, he would clearly like nothing more than for someone to follow in his footsteps, or per the opening quote here, his wake. He also has, as apparent even to an avid indoorsman like myself, a wealth of wisdom that would benefit anyone who cares about environmental preservation and sensible flood control.
Yet despite being such a rabid fan of history, Ralph spent little time reflecting on his place in it, or how he has personally changed the world for the better. But near the end of our fascinating conversation, he neatly encapsulated the abiding attitude with which he had lived his impressive life.
“The world is filled with givers and takers. I want to go down in history as one of the givers.”
Chicagoland Canoe Base, 4019 N. Narragansett, Chicago, (773) 777-1489
There is substantial information about Ralph Frese online that I found valuable, including this YouTube clip of a 2007 Chicago Tonight piece.
(This story was not sponsored nor requested. I have no affiliation with Ralph Frese or his commercial enterprises.)