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Remembering conservationist and canoe-maker Ralph Frese

Ralph Frese legendary canoe-maker conservationist left quite legacy when he died Monday 86. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

Ralph Frese, the legendary canoe-maker and conservationist, left quite a legacy when he died Monday at 86. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 13, 2013 11:10AM

The ‘‘Sons of the Shop’’
gathered Monday at Chicagoland Canoe Base, remembering and working toward the future, only hours after Ralph Frese died that morning.

That’s what men do. Take care of things. Do. Move. Build.

Mr. Frese, 86, known around the world as ‘‘Mr. Canoe,’’ taught his protégés well.

The men were liquidating the canoe shop on North Narragansett on the Northwest Side for the family and preparing to move some canoe basics to a warehouse in Maywood.

The legacy of Mr. Frese will live on in more than memory. It’s quite the legacy.

Mr. Frese was inducted into the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame in 2006. The North Branch of the Chicago River was renamed the Ralph Frese River Trail.

But his fame extended well beyond Chicago outdoors. He received a Legends of Paddling award from the American Canoe Association. Bill Derrah told the story of meeting a guy in Mississippi who built 40-foot canoes for the Mississippi River, a skill learned from Mr. Frese.

Mr. Frese seemed like a mountain — and equally indestructible — even with cancer.

‘‘We have known for a couple of years that Ralph has been ill,’’ Paul Ahlrich said. ‘‘But to us, he was made of granite. Three weeks ago, he was working on canoes. And we were still a little afraid of him.’’

The legal nuances of how the legacy will continue are being worked out. It might be called ‘‘Sons of the Shop’’ or something as formal as the Chicagoland Canoe Base Foundation. The idea is to continue with men mentoring younger men, both in life and the natural world.

‘‘We are going to rebuild the fleet,’’ Ahlrich said. ‘‘Young men will learn about history, about nature. We are going to bust their chops.’’

Make no mistake: Mr. Frese wasn’t the cuddly sort. For years, I thought he hated me — until I realized it was just his gruff style.

‘‘I met him when I was 16, and he was my age,’’ Derrah said. ‘‘It is hard to put in words. I have known Ralph over the years. He was like a father, a grumpy father. You had to work to get to know him. If you were insulted, you left.’’

Derrah said they spent the last several years making sure Mr. Frese’s collection of molds, jigs and patterns for canoes would be preserved.

‘‘We want to keep his records and library,’’ Derrah said. ‘‘Just for good measure, we are going to move his blacksmith shop.’’

Even though none of them is a blacksmith.

‘‘I can help build canoes,’’ Rich Gross said. ‘‘We are going to keep going with it. It is a lot of fun to hang out with Ralph, and I want to keep it going.’’

‘‘He was character,’’ Derrah said. ‘‘That was a big part of it. He dragged me into the Cook County Clean Streams Committee. . . . He had a relationship with Jim Phillips, ‘The Fox.’ He would always say, ‘You met ‘‘The Fox.’’ ’ We met him but didn’t know his secret identity. We met Clark Kent but not Superman.’’

In terms of conservation around Chicago, Phillips had the storybook legend of Superman, but Mr. Frese might have been more truly super.

Frese was active with the Chicago Maritime Museum, an unfinished work in progress. It would be nice if one of his legacies would be a more formal museum.

His impact goes on.

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

Hunting notes

Weather helped move geese and ducks into the area in the last few days, but it kept down harvest for Illinois’ muzzleloader-only deer season, which ended Sunday. Harvest was 3,535 deer, down from 4,878 in 2011.

Stray cast

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is as antiquated and dangerous as a low-head dam.

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