Please post here any memory about Ralph.
Ralph built his 42nd Canadienne for my father in law Alden Swensen back in the early 60’s. Ralph remembered Alden fondly when I took the canoe in to be rebuilt which Ralph did when he was 80 years old. Can you believe it? By talking with him, one could tell right away that Ralph so thoroughly loved his life’s work. And by the way, the refurbish is beautiful. Alden has passed away as well and the family would like to sell this beautiful custom built 18 1/2 foot Ralph Frese Canadienne, an artwork of a canoe.
For anyone interested, please call Dave Tollefsrud at 402-740-5349 (firstname.lastname@example.org) or David Sabby at 402-350-3662. The canoe is in pristine refurbished condition and is currently stored in Fridley Minnesota. The canoe comes with a new trailer.
Back in 1989 while on our US book tour, my dad and I received a request to visit the Chicago Canoe Land Base and stay at the home of Ralph Frese. This was quite unusual, as we’d been on the road for over a month traveling from hotel to hotel – I believe it was the only time we stayed at someone’s home during our entire 2 1/2 month tour. We learned that Ralph was a legendary canoe person well known in the Chicago area for his involvement with canoeing and the outdoors. Ralph extended an incredible level of hospitality to us – taking us on a historic tour of Chicago complete with a trip to the top of the Sears tower. My dad spent hours talking with Ralph about canoe design, canoeing history, and the large pageantry canoes that Ralph had been restoring at the time. I’ll never forget his passion for canoeing and the environment. Ralph left a huge impression on my dad and I and we both remembered our stay at his home as a major highlight of that summer.
I was performing at an event in Chicago yesterday afternoon and learned that Ralph had passed away. I was very sorry to hear this as I have no doubt he will be sorely missed by family, friends, and fellow adventurers. My personal experience with Ralph tells me that his spirit and passion will live on in the hearts of the many people he knew and met throughout his life. I will always remember him working away on a large canoe in his shop.
I wish you clear blue skies and calm waters my friend.
I first met Ralph many years ago. We had a mutual interest in canoe and kayak history/heritage. His generosity and kindness helped me when I and Wolfgang Brinck founded the now defunct Native Watercraft Society. His knowledge and kindness will be missed.
I just saw the sad news that Ralph has passed. This makes 2012 a tough year for the canoeing community with the passing of my friend Carl Williams, co-founder of Camp Kapitachuan in Quebec, on January 13, 2012. I cannot think of one man without thinking of the other.
I never met him in person but I spoke to Ralph many times over the years after I bought my first Grumman sail canoe in 1994. Marilyn Vogel of the ACA National Sailing Committee sent me to him when I needed parts. He not only had the parts, he encouraged me to live my dream of cruising and camping through the Everglades in a sailing canoe. I have done it twice now and Ralph was right, it was the perfect vessel for the trip.
He always told me to get an 18′ canoe for sailing, “The perfect size!” It took a few years to heed that advice but I just acquired one today. What a bitter sweet day.
He once called me a “Piker” because I only owned six canoes. I had to love him. Ralph, I am up to seven but compared to you I’ll always be a piker.
Peace, Al G. of Lakeville, CT
I worked for Ralph as a kayaking instructor back in the early 2000’s. I have very fond memories. Although it was in the latter part of his career, it was still obvious that he was the spine of the Chicago paddling community and has touched countless lives. He is a major reason we have seen a renaisance of surface water quality in North East Illinois. Those of us who love paddling, owe him a big debt.
I am so sorry to hear of Ralph’s passing. I did not know him but learned he was the ubiquitous Mr Canoe to the Chicago community and was the man to speak with regarding the restoration of my Old Town. Disappointed not to have made his acquaintance. Rest in peace, Sir.
I first met him after discovering him and the Base in the late 1960’s (1967?) after reading about the canoe project he undertook (building the voyageur canoe?) for the state’s susqusentennial historic recreation of the Joliet expedition? As a young lad whose head was filled with romantic/idyllic notions of what the unscathed Illinois in which I was growing up must have been like centuries before, including its native people who inhabited the Illinois prairie and waterways, his passion helped to fuel my own interests which led to a strong desire to paddle. Shortly thereafter I participated in the 1969 DesPlaines River marathon at the age of fifteen and went on from there to the Boundary Waters the same year. In 1970, I built a fiberglass kayak from a kit I bought (including the mold rental) from him that I used on the Wolf and elsewhere for a couple years. He could be ornery at times. I remember him screaming at a young employee and clearly embarrassing him to death for spilling a can of paint as the unlucky helper/employee nervously tried to transfer the contents to another pail under Ralph’s critical supervision; nevertheless, his heart, thoughts, ideas, and values were clearly in the right place (come to think of it, he also mercilessly admonished me with caustic sarcasm about the “health benefits” of smoking upon lighting up a cigarette in front of him). For his efforts at preserving our wild heritage he deserves the greatest admiration and gratitude. We need many more people like him.
Just learned of Ralph’s passing. I knew Ralph through my work with the Illinois Paddling Council in the late 70’s. Ralph did more for paddle sports than any other individual I can think of. He will be missed but his legacy lives on in all of us who love paddling and in the beautiful boats he made.
Ralph Freese – He was somebody special
I recently read about the passing of Ralph Freese in Canoe and Kayak magazine. I immediately knew the world had lost somebody special.
Ralph didn’t really know me. I was just another customer from out of town who popped into his Chicagoland Canoe Base store once a year to look at boats and paddling gear during my visits with family in Chicago. I only stopped in the store five or six times over the last few years. Ralph didn’t know I also came into the store to talk to him and listen to his stories. I knew I was talking to a legendary figure in the paddling world.
Ralph was passionate about paddling and he was especially proud of his Canadienne canoe which he designed. Inevitably during our discussions he would bring out his articles and spec sheet describing the Canadienne. To Ralph the Canadienne was the quintessential canoe with design lines reflecting the boats of the voyageurs era and being capable of easily handling any challenging water conditions. Ralph often would take me back to repair shop and show me his beautiful handiwork restoring some wood and canvas canoe back to its original condition or better. He would talk about canoes and canoe history with knowledge and enthusiasm few could equal.
I paddled the Des Plaines River canoe race in my younger years not knowing that Ralph was the one that organized it. I remember very reluctantly throwing my T-shirt from the 25th Annual Race into the rag pile well over 10 years ago. I paddled the Des Plaines, Fox River, and Boundary Waters during my college years. Out of it grew my passion for floating in my canoes and kayaks and finding peace in the surroundings and comfort of nature. Ralph understood my passion for paddling and spending time on the water because it was his passion also.
In this rat race world dominated by computer games, electronic gadgets, and more exciting jet skies, the world has lost someone who truly understood a simpler, more meaningful world. There would be no more long Saturday afternoon discussions on why the Canadienne was the best canoe design ever. There would be no more battered wood canoes being restored to their classic designs. The world has lost yet another artisan and craftsman of wood canoe building. It is a shame that so few will ever understand and appreciate that simpler world that Ralph knew.
Ugggg… Sorry to hear that Ralph passed on. He was a wealth of information. See you down the river, Ralph.
5 years ago I met Ralph Frese, the owner of Chicago Canoe Base who shared his life’s work with me about his accomplishments spreading the tradition of canoeing and even re-enacting the founding journey of chicago with other experts. He was a 4th Generation Blacksmith specializing in Artisan Hand Tools with a forge next door to his shop and had no family to pass it his trade.
I’ve been trying to find someone to carry on his labor of love, until after a phone call today to his shop informs me that he passed away this summer, and everything is being liquidated…. I can’t tell you how angry/frustrated/shitty/ and sad I feel for this lost opportunity as I should have taken the responsibility seen this through much sooner.
I cry for Ralph and his life’s work tonight, and I hope anyone who reads this message realizes that life’s way too short, and to take every opportunity seriously as it may die before you actually take it seriously.
Rest Peacefully Ralph Frese
Hi Axel. I recently returned to Chicago after living away for 12 years and came across the Chicagoland Canoe Basin website while searching for information on canoes and canoe gear (I’d like to get into canoeing for the tranquility it appears to provide and to share a great activity with my 3 little kids). I read several of the comments on this page and realize I missed meeting and getting to know a colorful character in Ralph Frese, and someone who is more than willing to share his knowledge of his skills. There aren’t enough people like him around anymore, but it’s very nice that you and others will carry on his traditions.
I remember visiting Ralp at the canoe shop and him sharing with me info about the many adventures there are to be had on the local waterways of the chicagoland area. We talked paddling and fishing. He also had great recommendations for quality conoe equipment. Ralph was a true enthusiast of the sport and am sure served as inspiration to many over the years to pick up a paddle.
For the past 15 or more years I have made a habit of stopping at Ralph’s store twice a year as ritual. Once each Summer and again just prior to Christmas. The Summer visit was always to help prepare myself for warm weather paddling, a new paddle, a book, etc., the Christmas trip was for gifts for family, mostly kids and grandkids and one year a lovely yellow Kayak for my wife. During these years I lived in the far south suburbs but I relished these trips. My purchases may have been small but the time spent talking with Ralph was unforgetable and as the bad TV commercial states “priceless. Over the years the time spent in the store on these trips expanded from minutes to hours. I’ve repeated many of his storys to my kids and grandkids, along with the books and CD’s and paddles they each received as gifts. This year I had planned my trip only to have my son call to inform me of Ralph’s death. A Hospital stay kept me from two important things, his funeral services and Ralph’s New Years day paddle that has become a coming of age party for my grandkids. Thank You Ralph for your time and your concern and just for being you.
So very saddened and my deepest condolences to Ralph’s lovely wife, Rita and the family. I am so very sorry for your loss.
I was one month into my new job as a sales rep. When I called to speak with Ralph (still nervous as it was a whole new career for me) he made me laugh and feel at ease. He told me to google his videos if I wanted some good entertainment. I had really looked forward to working with him. From what I learned in our short conversation, Ralph was a spirited soul and the world will not be quite the same with out him.
My condolences go out to all of his friends and family.
Being one of the many people given the opportunity of working for Ralph at his shop, I can easily say it was a rewarding experience throughout the several months in the spring of 1974 of building two 26’ North Canoes in order to start a 34’ Master Canoe in time for our Lake Superior expedition that summer.
From his experiments in lost wax casting of the Fort de Chartres’ child’s pistol hardware, the thorough discussions of canoe design, the high building standards he held for his canoes, the ornamental designs of wrought iron from his blacksmith forge, or the simple labor of replacing the vials and truing the masons’ levels, there was a myriad of things to learn from him that I am grateful for.
From our long-distance e-mail conversation of last July, as his usual self, he gave me no indication of his health. Bless him. May his legacy continue through everyone’s good works and the preservation and use of his Canoe Museum, the library, canoe molds, jigs and patterns as well as his and his Dad’s blacksmithing tools. God bless you and your family Ralph.
Milo from Moorhead, MN
Many thanks to Ralph Frese I was able to rekindle my fondness of canoeing and have spent not nearly enough hours since we first met on the water; many times thinking of him. The last thought of Ralph was this New Year’s Day, as he once shared with me his ritual canoeing trip on that day in years past. Unfortunately I was only able to visit with Ralph less than a handful of times, but each time I gained a great deal of respect for the man I knew very little of. I was truly fortunate to have been given the opportunity meet Ralph. He will undoubtedly be missed by many.
My deepest sympathy to his family,
I am sorry to say I never meet Ralph in person, but we shared a friendship, lots of conversations about lures and the love of life we both had. My life is richer just having had a few minutes on the phone with Ralph. He will be one of several men that I will look up once I am laid to rest. God Blessed him and the rest of us with his presents.
I would like to Thank ALL the canoeists and kayakers who continued the New Year’s Tradition of going out on the North Branch yesterday Celebrating the first day of 2013. I know Ralph was casting his Blessings on all of you. Whoever tried to cancel it, shame on you. JC
I first met Ralph in the early ’70s when the canoe my parents had built on their honeymoon in Rhinelander, Wisconsin had canvas damaged by our new puppies. I was in a panic and Ralph was very patient and and reassuring. He calmed me down and later repaired the damage for a very modest price. He has been a fixture in our canoe life ever since.
We miss you, Ralph. May you rest in peace.
It was a few years ago when I finally decided to buy a canoe. Ralph was a legend and his store was the only place I wanted to go. He helped me through the process, told us stories, made us smile, and I’m so glad my son got to meet him. I have a great admiration for him and he’ll be missed. An original.
I owe Ralph a lot. Through him, I was able to fill a position in the Marquette canoe for the 1973 Jolliet-Marquette Expedition. I got to paddle in areas and waters that I would never have been able to do on my own. I’ve gone on to work on many projects with the Voyageur canoes here in the Peoria area. I’ve also developed a keen interest in Illinois French Canadian history as well as my French Canadian family history. Thanks for pointing me in a great direction. RIP my brother.
I frequented Ralph’s shop more for a visit than a purchase; that never seemed to worry Ralph. Sometimes I’d say I have to go to which he’d reply, “What’s your hurry?”
I remember Ralph saying he worked on a farm during World War II and the guys there would try to play jokes on the city bumpkin. One thing they did was to ask him to milk the bull but he knew better than that.
Ralph was a naturalist and a great one at that. I miss him already.
Years ago I stopped by with my kayak, that I had busted the back end up going over a dam.. I wanted to get it fixed, Ralph gave me a piece of heavy fiberglass mat, told me to save my money and fix it myself, With his guidance I was able to fix it and learned how to do fiberglass repairs which has come in handy many times over, Thanks Ralph. Jim
Ralph sold me my first Klepper kayak in 1966, when he was one of the earlier US distributors. Over the years he helped me with a number of purchases, the last one just a month before he passed away. On that occasion, as in the past, we spent a long time reminiscing about kayaks and adventures on the water. Unfortunately, we were never together on any of those trips. I obviously missed out on something. He seemed to be in good spirits, and he didn’t say anything about his health, other than grousing about getting old. I’ll always think of Ralph every time I paddle my Klepper, as I have throughout the 46 years I knew him.
My first canoe trips were in boats rented from Ralph. I was 10 or 12 years old; my Dad backed the station wagon through the alley behind Ralph’s shop, “Chicagoland Canoe Base,” hitched up the trailer full of canoes, and the adventures began, with families of Dad’s colleagues at work, floating down the Fox, Mazon, and Vermillion rivers. Not many years after that, the adventure graduated to another level, as I spent four summers canoeing across Northern Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.
Fast forward a lot of years (and more than a few river miles), and that was ME backing the station wagon through the alley behind the shop, hitching up the rented trailer… I had some déjà vu that day…
Nowadays I spend my free time volunteering for my local Forest Preserve District, teaching canoeing, guiding canoe programs, helping with the District’s historical Voyageur programs, and cleaning up our local waterways. I also repair canoes, build canoe paddles, and have two antique Old Town wood & canvas canoes that I need to restore; one of them, according to its previous owner, was re-canvased by Ralph sometime in the 1960s. Whether directly or indirectly, intentionally or otherwise, Ralph had a hand in much of what I do today. I can only think of two other people who have had this much influence in my life… and they both knew Ralph.
Thank you, Ralph, for all of your many gifts to us. And thank you, Rita, for sharing your husband with us; on more than one occasion, he told me you were the best thing that ever happened to him. As we paddle, teach, guide, and re-enact; as we build, repair, and restore canoes and paddles; as we cut buckthorn, honeysuckle, and other invasive non-native plants, and replace them with the native cardinal flower, butterfly weed, and (of course!) bluebells, we will remember you. Paddles up.
I met Ralph some 33 years ago, when by the unfortunate death of my father, had me stuck in Illinois.
I was building/ restoring an Old Town Whitecap sloop.
The centerboard pivot was missing so Ralph made me one from a brass billet.
When the boat was finished I hauled her to his shop for him to put the critical eye on her, as he now was my surrogate dad.
As an honor he had this Old Town poster of an old school canoe builder with the caption, ,” the old masters have the touch”.
Its a bit faded now, but has been hanging in my various shops thru the years. Its now hear in Wilmington, NC.
A constant reminder of Ralph.
He was a good man.
When my late wife — Joanne Alter — was nominated for election to the Sanitary District, Ralph was very excited. Here was the first woman, and probably the first honest Commissioner. He helped her with many things. Frostbite ice breaker down North Branch of Chicago River, Desplaines Marathon, lectures on river problems, etc. Helped Joanne help organize Friends of the River. Voyageur canoe trip to Apostle Islands. Always with maximum PR. She won her first term in 1972 by an overwhelming vote, and served two more six year terms. Ralph, how we both loved you and Rita.
Ralph was a huge help to me while I wrote my dissertation chapter about the American Indian Center Chicago Canoe Club. Ralph was, of course, an important resource for that club. I hope folks will always remember what an asset he was to the Chicago American Indian Center & community.
You were a special man, Ralph. I offer my prayers to you and your family. Migwetch nikaan!
John low, Ph.D
Pokagon Band Potawatomi
Ohio State University – Newark
Been years since we were there (Chicago Base). Joyce wrote a little book back in the early 90’s on a canoe trip she and I took across a part of Canada. You folks there at Chicago Base agreed to put it on sale at your store. Then had an evening where customers could come in and Joyce gave a little talk about the trip promoting the book. That’s when we met Ralph. We’ve never forgotten him. You don’t forget a life-force like that. His enthusiasm about all things canoeing was so catching. Rita and family, please accept our condolences on Ralph’s passing, so sorry.
I visited the canoe base a few times over the years, and was always impressed at the practical and historical knowledge that Ralph possesed and was willing to share with me. He also took time to show me around his shop, including the foundry and canoe workshop. His enthusiasm further infected me with my late-in-life love of canoeing. May the wind and the current always be at your back, Ralph.
I never got to meet Ralph because I live in Portland Oregon but shared lots of emails over the years chasing the no name lure , I found Tara the maker of the lure and shared that with RALPH he went to work and found that Northead jigs is making them soon I’m so sorry he will not get to finish his dream of fishing the lure ,he always respond to my emails you can have a friend even if you never touched him or shook his hand he had away of touching your hart just a very nice and special person and I will miss him .
God has a plan for all of us and we have no right to change his will , good fishing Ralph because god will give you all the no name lure you will need . BILL . B
Thank You, I knew he always put a lot of time into his projects. I only knew of that time when at one of the Clean Streams meetings he brought up the subject and we were all surprised when he mentioned a cannon. We all really started to laugh when it was suggested that a cannon might resolve some of are environmental issues.
For the past 30 years, Ralph has been a part of my better self.
His historic re-tracing of the Marquette & Joliet Expedition inspired me as a child to find the wilderness in my own city. Years later, I gave my son the name Marquette hoping to one day inspire him to find his own wilderness. The DesPlaines River Marathons and New Year’s Day Paddles remain indelible memories and some of the my best spent times. Hours spent alone in a canoe on the Chicago River, DesPlaines Cal-Sag and Lake Michigan and other local waterways are the cornerstones and saving moments of my urban life. My every paddle stroke echoes Ralph’s name as my beloved wooden paddles were bought on sale at the Canoe Base.
Perhaps, best of all, Ralph inspired me to outfit my fiberglass Stowe Canoe with oars and row between the Apostle Island’s on Lake Superior. This 10-day trip, on my own, on the most beautifull and unforgiving Great Lake remains the North Star of my adult life. Ralph inspired me to do more and to try, and continue to try, to leave something better behind.
I am eternally grateful to Ralph for what he shared with me and for the path he blazed for all of us. Clearly, now is the time for all of us to carry on his legacy and Do More.
years ago I pulled a fancy tilted canoe blade out of the 2nds bin . The blade had a crack and costs only 15 dollars.Ralph went in the back room and came out with,some kind of epoxy glue in powder form. Here add water and glue the paddle. This thing is the best lightweight paddle I ever had and use it till this day. Every time I used the paddle I thought of the man who took the time and had the patience to teach me something.In later years I got to paddle with him when he came with the Chicago Whitewater association events and was enlightened by his stories and reasoning. I was also amazed in his involvement with the scouts as this is where I was introduced into canoeing. I wish I spent more time with him. God Bless You Ralph.
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