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Canoe expert and conservationist Ralph Frese dies at 86

Ralph Frese canoemaker conservationist. | Provided Photo

Ralph Frese, canoemaker and conservationist. | Provided Photo

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Updated: January 12, 2013 6:24AM

Ralph Frese was known throughout North America as “Mr. Canoe.”

Mr. Frese, owner of the Chicagoland Canoe Base shop at Irving and Narragansett, designed beautiful watercraft for all types of freshwater sailors.

“I would call him one of the most influential canoeists in the world,” said James Raffan, executive director of the Canadian Canoe Museum, in Peterborough, Ontario.

In addition to building modern canoes for people who wanted to glide down Chicago area rivers, Mr. Frese also made highly prized vessels for historical re-enactments.

He built replicas of 34-foot Montreals, used in the old fur trade; 26-footer Canot du Nord crafts for skimming the surface of the Great Lakes, and 20-footers for recreating “le voyage” of fur trader Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette, who in 1673 made an epic journey tracing the northern part of the Mississippi River, becoming the first Europeans to view what would become the city of Chicago.

In 1973, he organized a re-enactment of the 300th anniversary of the Joliet-Marquette journey. The “voyageurs” traveled 3,000 miles in about three months, from St. Ignace, Mich., to Arkansas, and back up to Green Bay, Wis., in replica birchbark canoes built by Mr. Frese.

And in 1976, he provided canoes for a re-enactment of the explorer LaSalle’s 1682 journey from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Frese single-mindedly — and almost single-handedly — spread the message that the canoe was as important as the horse or railroad in the development of modern-day America, Raffan said.

A conservationist who never tired of the herons, frogs and unique plants and trees that flourish along Chicago’s waterways, Mr. Frese died Monday of prostate cancer at Midwest Palliative & Hospice CareCenter in Glenview. He had been canoeing for 72 of his 86 years.

He acquired his first watercraft, a used Mead Glider kayak, when he was about 14, said his friend and fellow canoeist, Bill Derrah. Growing up on the Northwest Side, Mr. Frese was close to the Des Plaines and North branches of the Chicago River.

He loved being “admiral of my own Navy,” he said in a 2007 interview with WTTW’s Jay Shefsky. When he sailed, he was enchanted by the beauty around him. He retained that childhood sense of joy and spread it to others, friends said.

“The canoe is really a magic escape,” he told Shefsky as he toured the Skokie Lagoons. “We’re in the middle of 6 million people and we’ve got a little bit of this all to ourself.”

A fourth-generation trained blacksmith, he began restoring and building canoes in a workspace in the back of his shop at 4019 N. Narragansett.

“He created that whole concept that you could build these [vintage] boats again,” Derrah said.

With Mr. Frese’s replica canoes, “I’ve gone hundreds of miles on the Great Lakes,” Derrah said.

They were identifiable for Mr. Frese’s skill.

“If I was on one of his boats, people would stop on bridges and say, ‘Hey, I know the guy who builds those boats!’ ”

Countless boy scouts were introduced to canoeing through his creations, according to Derrah and Mr. Frese’s friend Rich Gross, a protege who learned how to build canoes from him.

Mr. Frese received a “Legends of Paddling” award from the American Canoe Association and a lifetime achievement award from the National Mississippi River Museum. He was a member of the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame. The north branch of the Chicago River was renamed the Ralph Frese River Trail in his honor.

He added more than 120 canoes and kayaks to the collection of the Chicago Maritime Museum from as far away as Africa, South and Central America, and Polynesia, author Mary Ann O’Rourke wrote in an upcoming article planned for the museum website.

Mr. Frese built his last canoe two months ago with his friend, Gross. “He danced a jig, he was having so much fun,” Gross said. Mr. Frese is survived by his wife, Rita, with whom he often canoed; his children, Diane Gritton, Valerie Fetcho and Chaz Clary; his sister, Gloria, and four grandchildren.

Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Simkins Funeral Home, 6251 W. Dempster, Morton Grove. A service is at 8 p.m.

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