Remembering ‘Mr. Canoe,’ Ralph Frese, 1926-2012

By Tom Lindblade
President, The Illinois Paddling Council

Ralph Frese, known as “Mr Canoe,”passed away Dec. 10. Ralph was a peculiarly Chicago character, who presided over The Chicagoland Canoe Base for more than 50 years. He was a fourth-generation blacksmith — maybe the last in Chicago. Ralph used his blacksmithing fabrication skills to design, build and restore canoes, from his famous Canadiane (licensed to and built by Old Town for several years) to his birch bark recreations of various voyageur canoes.

Summing up Ralph’s life and influence in a few short paragraphs is impossible. Suffice to say that Ralph touched every aspect of paddling. He was a force of nature and had influence on river conservation at a national level.

Everyone who met him remembers and has a story. Ralph was an extremely complicated, charismatic and opinionated genius. If Ralph disagreed with you, you knew it in no uncertain terms. On the other hand, Ralph was capable of speaking and writing lyrically.

Ralph didn’t seem to forget anything he read, and he could connect the dots. He was a great amateur historian. Ralph’s dot connecting is responsible for the upsurge in interest about the voyageurs and French history in the Midwest, and Ralph was responsible for numerous historical paddles, including a re-creation of the LaSalle expedition of discovery.

Ralph founded the Illinois Paddling Council in 1963. Just after he went into the hospital a few weeks ago, we had our end-of-season meeting. Everyone had a Ralph story. The new Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) representative told how proud Ralph had been to show her his Lifetime Achievement Award video (which I had the pleasure of editing), and which included a phone message from IDNR Director Marc Miller.

Here’s my Ralph story …

About 30 years ago, I read an article about some folding boats that had been left at the top of the Chilkoot Pass trail in Alaska during the Klondike gold rush around 1899. For some reason, I was intrigued, and a few years later hiked the Chilkoot trail with some students. We found the pile of boats and took some pictures at the pass, which is now a protected national park. Ralph had an extensive collection of historic boats and canoes, so a few weeks later I went to the Canoe Base to show him the pictures, figuring he would be duly impressed. His response was a fairly dismissive, “Oh, I have one of those in my collection.” Years before, someone had carried one of the boats down off the pass and given it to Ralph before it became a protected area.

Even though receiving chemo for a long time, Ralph remained one of the pillars of our community. He continued to do our winter “Evenings with Ralph” until last March. Ralph was responsible for founding much of our Illinois infrastructure, like the Paddling Council, Prairie State Canoeists (largest paddling club in the Midwest), the New Year’s Day Paddle (29 years) and the Des Plaines Canoe and Kayak Marathon (second-oldest canoe race in the U.S.). These institutions are the envy of our surrounding states. They will prove to be his legacy.

There will never be another paddling blacksmith. We will miss you, Ralph!

If you would like to see my video on Ralph, put “Ralph Frese, A Lifetime of Achievement” into YouTube.

From the Jan. 9-15, 2013, issue

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