Memories

Please post here any memory about Ralph.

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  1. Dave Tollefsrud

    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 (dktollef@gmail.com) 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.

  2. 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.

    Dana Starkell

  3. 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.

  4. Albert Ginouves

    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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    Gosrytr

  10. J.K. in Norridge

    Ugggg… Sorry to hear that Ralph passed on. He was a wealth of information. See you down the river, Ralph.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. So very saddened and my deepest condolences to Ralph’s lovely wife, Rita and the family. I am so very sorry for your loss.

  15. 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.

  16. 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

  17. This story started out as a quick remembrance of my time with Ralph Frese. The more I began to write the more I realized that I had much more to say. Like Ralph I am a storyteller and as such I feel the need to tell you the whole story of Ralph, the Canadienne, and me. It is long but it is from the heart. If you have 20 minutes to listen I would like to share it with you. This is my tale that I affectionately call… Canadienne’s & Keel Strips My Time With A Canoe Guru I grew up on the South Side of Chicago but for the past 20 years the inland seas and raging rivers of the North West have been my home. My family purchased a Grumman canoe in 1976 and I didn’t realize at the time that this over-sized aluminum boat would change my life and my life style forever. I quickly realized that aluminum boats don’t do so well on the steep and rocky rivers of the NW so I invested in a used Royalex boat that could handle wilderness travel as well as the rigors of the NW pool and drop rivers. I paddled alone, I paddled with friends, I paddled in the sun, I paddled in the snow, and of course I paddled in the rain. I ran every river that I thought was passable and even attempted and survived a few that were less so. You gain expedition confidence and learn your paddling limitations by traveling through all types of water, be they friendly or foe; I was eager for adventure so testing that limitation became my passion. My family in Chicago knew of this paddle crazy passion of mine so in 1994 when searching for an appropriate holiday gift one of ms Sisters sent me this peculiar looking jumbo green canvas pack with 3 inch wide leather straps, copper rivets, and an oversized clear plastic bag to stuff inside. “Umm…this looks nice but what is it for I asked her?” “I went to this canoeing store on the North side and they told me if your brother doesn’t have one he will need it; they called it a Duluth Pack and it is supposed to be for carrying gear in your canoe.” I did not understand at the time how this pack was better than roll top plastic dry bags but after my first 7-day wilderness trip I learned to love my Duluth Pack. Fast forward to 2007 when another of my Sisters saw an article in the local paper talking about a “New Years Day Paddle” on the Chicago River; we are a paddling family so it immediately grabbed her attention. I was planning a visit to Chicago for New Years and all my sister had to do was mention the fact that there is going to be a group of paddlers on the Chicago River for a New Years Day Paddle. Not knowing the logistics, the weather forecast, the route, or the reason for the paddle; I immediately got excited and said…”I am In!” I did some research from the Seattle side and that was when I first saw the name Ralph Frese and the Chicagoland Canoe Base. Wow! This is a man that lives, breathes, and loves canoes; Hmm I wonder what he is like? I first met Ralph on the frozen windswept banks of the N. Branch Chicago River on 1/1/2007. His cheerful wind blown cheeks matched his classic red Voyageur Toque that always adorned his head. The tassle at just the right angle, the steely penetrating gaze, the oversized hands, and the welcoming smile; even if you had just met Ralph he exuded the comfort and confidence of an old friend. “So you are from Seattle?” Ralph questions me. “Do you know Bob Melrick? He paddled a “Canadienne” through the Inner Passage from Alaska all the way to the Columbia River.” “On another trip he then paddled the Frasier and plans to continue adventure paddling wherever he can.” I wasn’t sure what the “Canadienne” was and I hadn’t even gotten on the water yet; but after 10 minutes of stories from Ralph my feet were already feeling the cold. I loved to hear Ralph tell the stories but I had to break myself away so I could get on the water. The paddle was a fantastic success and I was so pleased with the entire event that once I returned home to Seattle I wrote this little note to Ralph. Instead of summarizing our conversation I have included the entire text here. ———————————————————————————– Greetings Ralph, (01/03/08) As an avid paddler that currently lives in the Seattle area I never thought a New Years trip to Chicago would reward me with what has turned out to be one of my favorite paddle trips to date. As an adventure oriented person my family knows that my place of spirituality and inner peace is at the captains end of a paddle powered vessel. They searched out places to paddle while I was in town and we found your website and its link to the New Years Day Paddle. 1/2 the family was in and the other 1/2 thought we were crazy for exposing ourselves to the cold and the risk of a brisk Polar Bear swim. Undaunted we packed our wool socks, rubber booties, balaclavas, extra clothes, and hot cocoa to prepare for the big event. We were on the water by 10:15 and any thoughts of discomfort or irrational adventure were quickly erased as we slipped into the forrest canopy. I think the penultimate Chicago adventure is the New Years day Paddle down the N Branch with you and your paddle club! I am certain that I have been on more than 1,000 canoe trips in my lifetime and this one ranks as one of my top 10 favorite ever! The pristine paddle through the narrow intimate snow draped canopy was an unforgettable experience that filled one with silent reverence for the world around you. Instead of feeling out of place for being there I found myself feeling sorry for all those who could not enjoy this sensory smorgasborg. One has to balance the desire to share this beautiful experience with as many as will listen against the thought that too many here will spoil the serenity. As you have often said in your writings the water trails we travel are unique because the passage of paddle craft upon them leaves minimal or zero impact upon the environment. In no other sport do I feel such immersion in the environment as a natural participant; as oppossed to being an intruder. Many thanks for all that you do to promote this beautiful sport and fantastic event!! Happy Canoe Year! Phil Meyer PS: One of my siblings gave me a Duluth Pack purchased at your shop about 13 years ago. I have paddled and portaged it through many an adventure in the NW. I had read about the pack plenty in the writings of Bill Mason & Cliff Jacobsen and I was able to test it fully while journeying through The Bowron Lakes, Powell River Circuit, and Seyward Forrest Canoe Circuit in B.C. Sometimes the tried and true designs are better than the miracle fabrics of modern technology. Speaking of which; I was perusing your site expecting to find a Toque for sale? My Wife is Canadian so balance that with my love of canoes and I figure I better have one for my collection. Hmm…Red, Black, or Green? Cheers… To which Ralph replied… ————————————————————————————— Dear Phil: (01/04/08) Thank you ever so much for your response to our NYD paddle! I have sent a copy to our county forest preserve district commissioner, Larry Suffredin, who became interested in the North Branch after I cornered him at a meeting years ago and was responsible for getting the county to sponsor this event annually now. Also sent a copy to our FPD supt. Steve Bylina, to make him more aware of the potential use our little streams have. It is comments like yours that will have a great impact on the authorities that have the power to make the changes necessary. Thank you again. Have you seen our little clip on you tube? Look for canoe guru and also for the annual NYD. . I wish you would have had a chance to visit our shop. I might not be here next year because I am trying to sell it to retire. But I will be on the river next year anyhow- Happy Ca-New Year! C.C.B. Staff 4019 N. Narragansett Ave Chicago, IL, 60634 My siblings and I enjoyed the New Years Day Paddle so much that our participation quickly became an annual tradition. In 2008 my sister and I had convinced several other family members to come along for the New Years Day adventure (we neglected to report the numb toes, frozen fingers, and wind chilled cheeks). We still had our 1976 Grumman but we did not have enough room for the other 4 family members planning to join us; so we of course called Ralph at the shop. “Why yes I have several canoes to rent but how are you going to transport them?” To which we reported that we had two cars that could each carry a canoe but what to do with the third one? “We are bringing our trailer to the paddle so we could just put the two rental boats on board and bring them along for you.” Thank you Ralph, that would be awesome. Not only did Ralph make sure the boats were at the put in he also arranged to have a trailer at the take out so we did not have to drive them back to his shop on Narraganset. In 2009 my siblings and myself once again contacted Ralph at his shop to reserve canoes for the New Years Day Paddle. We were hoping to be lucky enough to have the canoes delivered on the trailer for us once again but Ralph told us he didn’t have an extra truck and driver to haul it. Of course Ralph was never one to dissuade a canoe trip so he offered a solution…”just stop by the shop to pick up the rental boats and we will load them on the trailer for you to use for the weekend.” That sounds great Ralph, what will be the charge for the use of the trailer? We asked. “Oh I don’t know, but we will figure something out.” He replied. This transaction was typical Ralph as in he didn’t fret the dollars and cents as much as he probably should have (he charged us $20 & zero deposit for a three day trailer rental). The money was a necessary evil for him to run his business but it was apparent that his passion was getting butts in seats and paddles into the water; the rest would then harmoniously take care of itself. In December 2009 I was fortunate enough to join my brother Matt to pick up the canoes and trailer from Ralph at his Chicagoland Canoe Base. The first thing you noticed about the Chicagoland Canoe Base was its location; it was not on the banks of some pristine waterway, or any waterway for that matter; it was smack dab in the middle of a congested graffiti covered Chicago neighborhood. I was so sure the address was incorrect or we were lost that we drove right by the shop twice. We eventually found the narrow alleyway and the backyard entrance but if it weren’t for the side yard full of canoes and canoe forms you would still question the existence of a paddling shop here in the middle of the city. Upon entering the Chicagoland Canoe Base you were instantly assured that this place is more than just a place of business, you instantly knew that this place represents somebody’s lifelong passion and dedication; that person of course is Ralph Frese. Sure the shop had the obligatory life jackets, paddles, books, clothing, and boats for sale but the inventory was sparse, some of the shelves were dusty, and the price tags were few. I have been in and around many a water sports store but this place was not a water sports store; this place is a canoe haven and I love it! Ralph was on the phone so while we waited to talk to him we enjoyed the many pictures, articles, and artifacts that decorated his shop. It was at times difficult to differentiate the artifacts from the articles that were actually for sale but then I saw it…I saw this beautiful blue canoe displayed against the wall near his office area. It was absolutely beautiful! I saw the craftsmanship of inlaid Mahogany on the gunwales, I saw hand made Ash seats carved, sanded, and lacquered to a mirror sheen. I saw brass end caps proudly protecting the bow/stern that had a spiral design which I later learned was a Brass Fleur-de-Lis {Ralph told me the Fleur-de-Lis was for him an SOP –Standard Operating Procedure} I then saw a small plaque riveted to the bow;…”Customized & Outfitted. Ralph Frese 06/08 Chicagoland Canoe Base.” I own three canoes in Seattle But I had never seen such a beautiful display of craftsmanship, functionality, and beauty all in one. It was then that I saw the part of this display boat that interested me the most; I saw a price tag. I could not believe that this beautiful boat that looked to be of museum quality was actually available for sale; and here it is at my fingertips. It was not cheap but this boat was a piece of art that deserved indoor lighting, whispered tones, and a velvet perch. I fell in love with that boat and the idea of having it in my fleet; I was getting butterflies just thinking about it. Since I live 2,500 miles away in Seattle this is not a healthy attraction for an out of town airline visitor; is it? Ralph finally got off the phone and I was instantly snapped back to reality and focusing on the task at hand, picking up the three rental canoes and trailer. I was still daydreaming about the blue canoe but I wanted to buy something here that I could keep as a treasured reminder of this shop. Ralph had a beautiful collection of hand crafted wooden paddles that seemed expensive compared to the aluminum/composite ones I use at home; but they represented Ralph’s passion to me. I looked at them all lovingly and decided I needed one here in Chicago; my many paddles and canoes are at home in Seattle but at least I will have this piece of the Chicagoland Canoe Base to use on the New Years Day Paddle. If you have ever been waiting for Ralph to stop talking you know that it could be a while; he can and will tell you one story that leads to another that leads to another. He spoke a lot and he spoke for a long time but it was never idle chatter to me; he was a man that spoke with a purpose, it just so happened that his purpose was first to inform you, then to educate you, and then to welcome you into the paddling lifestyle. We got out of there in an hour or so but not before we could see his shop and hear many of his stories about history, blacksmithing, woodworking, canoeing, sailing, museums, and the combination of them all. This after all is in essence what Ralph Frese and the Chciagoland Canoe Base is all about. The 2009 New Years Day Paddle was another fantastic trip that was enjoyed by the many participants. As usual the temperatures were low but the morale was high; and so thankfully, was the water level. I was proud to be paddling my families old 1976 Grumman but I was more than green with envy at the plethora of hand built boats that lined the frozen grass awaiting their departure. For a canoe-nut like myself this was comparable to a gear-head looking at hot rods with their hoods up at the local drive in. Ralph was there of course with his usual beaming smile, red touque, bear hug of a hand shake, and traditional “Happy Canoe Year!” salutation. I did not own one of these beautiful boats lining the put-in but I enjoyed looking at them, their construction, their rigging, and their owners. I had this beautiful new paddle in hand but I was still dreaming of a new boat; I was dreaming about that blue boat in Ralph’s shop. I did not tell the rest of my family about this fantasy of buying a boat yet but over the past couple days I was indeed eyeing up their garages, sheds, and storage spaces to assess their capacity. We began the New Years Day Paddle as a family group but the confines of the river and the obtrusion of the overhanging branches quickly separated us into a single file floating caravan. This separation also left me to my thoughts and dreams of owning and paddling a Ralph Frese outfitted canoe. This might be similar to your teenager showing up at home with an un-authorized puppy but despite the logistical obstacles I felt that beautiful blue canoe calling to me. I decided right there on that trip {just before the roll dam portage} that come what may I could not live with regret; I had to have that boat. We finished the paddle and hauled all our gear up the bank across the field and over to the parking lot. My family was all excited about the successful paddle and getting into some nice warm heated seats but I had to find Ralph to talk about that blue boat. It took a few minutes of wandering about but I finally found him near the hot cocoa hut; and fortunately for me he was in-between conversations. “Ralph…excuse me Ralph?” “Yes, Hello, hello again. How was the paddle?” He asks. “The paddle was awesome Ralph and thank you once again for organizing this event. I wanted to talk to you about that blue canoe in your shop. The one on the stands against the wall next to the office.” “Ah yes. That is a nice lake canoe for calm days and small families. What are you hoping to do with it?” “Well I just love the way it looks and I would like to get it to bring out to Seattle for some extended wilderness trips and the occasional river run.” Without even blinking an eye or hesitating to ponder the thought he tells me…”Oh, you don’t want that boat then. It is a lower volume 15 ft boat, it has sharp chines, minimal rocker, and a max load capacity of 500 lbs. It is best suited for day trips on flat water. What you need is a higher volume longer boat with more rocker, stability in surf, and higher load capacity. The type of boat you would need is the “Canadienne” and I just happened to have a used Kevlar one manufactured by Old Town at the shop.” I was full of nervous excitement with the expectation of buying this exact boat from Ralph and he instantly told me …”No, it is not the right boat for you.” I had already envisioned that boat under my butt and me paddling off into the sunset; now I was crest fallen. I thought Ralph would be excited to sell me the boat so I was stunned at his near instant decision to tell me no it isn’t right for you. He didn’t outright refuse to sell me the boat but I knew that this man was a “Canoe-Sensei” so who was I to question his judgment? I knew he told me that retirement was on the horizon so I desperately wanted to own a Ralph Frese designed boat. Even if I demanded to purchase the blue boat I knew that he would not be happy to do so. I took a deep breath as I concealed my disappointment and I asked …”so tell me about the Old Town.” “Ahh…” He says with an all knowing gleam in his eye… “ The Canadienne is an expedition quality boat that glides through the water with ease, it cuts through the waves without swamping, it hauls a massive payload, and it tracks straight and true. This model design, name, hull shape, and outfitting were designed by me specifically for wilderness travel on big water. I used to manufacture this boat but I could not keep up with production so I licensed it to Old Town. They made it for several years but they no longer do so. This particular boat is a used green 17’ model which was manufactured by the Old Town company and built with a Kevlar layer up.” “That sounds great Ralph and the boat certainly sounds better suited to my needs but what I truly love about the blue boat in your shop is the beautiful woodwork, the Brass endcaps, and the signature plaque from you and your shop.” To which he looked at me with a smile and said …”It currently has aluminum gunwales and thwarts but I have more wood and Brass in the shop; I could certainly outfit this one for you if you wish.” I had an adrenaline rush of excitement like a schoolboy on the first day of Summer Break. Wow, this boat would be a custom job outfitted just for me! “One more question Ralph…What about the small plaque that identifies the boat as a Ralph Frese custom build?” To which he chuckled and said…”I think we have a couple of those plaques around the shop somewhere.” How could I possibly refuse an offer like that? Without even discussing the price I told him…”I will take it and we can talk about it some more tomorrow when I return your rental boats and trailer.” My Mom and I arrived at the Chicagoland Canoe Base early the next day. I was flying out from O’Hare that afternoon but I knew that talking to Ralph about this boat really meant “listening” to Ralph and being educated as I did so. The boat was there and it looked to be in good condition but without the custom Ralph Frese work it really did not look like anything exceptional. He showed us the boat and described how he was going to remove all hardware to begin anew with the custom outfitting. He took us into the blacksmith shop to show us his oven, his anvil, his tools, and how he would use them all to tool the Brass. We spoke of the woodwork and I requested that he rebuild the seats as well as the gunwales, thwarts, and endcaps. “Not a problem.” He said. Then he grabbed a step stool to reach up high into the rafters to pull down two long pieces of wood. “Look at this, these are straight grain no knot pieces of Ash and Mahogany that I purchased years ago. You can’t even buy wood of this grain any more; this is what we will use on your boat.” I didn’t question his reasoning or attempt to alter his thought process {as if that were possible}; I just enjoyed the moment of conception and the creation of this “Canadienne” that will affectionately be known as “The Ralph.” It took nearly two hours to drop off the rentals, create the work plan on the “Canadienne”, and give Ralph a deposit on the job. Actually that stuff realistically took only ten minutes but the rest of the time was spent listening, observing, and absorbing. I just couldn’t get enough of Ralph, his shop, and his stories; my Mom could sense my infatuation so she kept an eye on the clock so I didn’t miss my flight back to Seattle. I didn’t plan on receiving the boat until the New Years Day Paddle one year later so I left there like an expectant father floating on a cloud of happiness, anticipation, wonder, and excitement. Waiting a whole year to receive this boat is not going to be easy but the delay-ment of gratification has its own rewards. Immediately upon my return home I penned this email to Ralph and staff to thank them for all their hard work on the New Years day Paddle. I think the flow of our communication bears relevance to my story. Instead of my re-counting the connection between us I have included the text of several of our emails here. ——————————————————————————- Hello Ralph, John, & Friends of Chicagoland Canoe Base; (01/06/09) Many thanks for all the work and planning that is required to make the annual New Years Day Paddle a fantastic event. I live in the Seattle area but was fortunate enough to participate in this event for my second time. I had such a good time on the 2008 paddle that I managed to talk several other family members into joining us for the 2009 trip. They live in the Chicago area and are certain that it must be crazy to be paddling in the Winter; but given enough hot cocoa, wool socks, neoprene, and peer pressure I was able to get them on board. Once we were afloat under the Willow Road Bridge their concerns were replaced by the youthful exuberance of discovery and exploration. Like Alice through the rabbit hole we had entered a secret world where we are welcome to explore at will; but once we are gone there is magically no trace of our passing. Many people live and work within close proximity of this branch of the Chicago River but unfortunately for them they have no idea of the secret world that can be explored in it from the seat of a canoe. Unlike last year we did not have fresh snow on the barren outstretched limbs of the mighty Oak trees that line the East Branch of the Chicago River but this year we were fortunate to have higher water. The higher water gave us a little bit faster flow, a wider channel, and a smoother ride as it allowed us to glide right over many obstacles {including the small roll dam that required some careful stepping onto “Ralph’s Plank” to negotiate a safe passage}. Many thanks to the police that stood out in the cold to coordinate traffic, many thanks to the Cook County Forest Preserve Administration for providing us a shuttle bus, and last but not least many thanks to Ralph Frese and the friends of the Chicagoland Canoe Base for making this event a must on the calendar of every Chicagoland paddler {and even one from Seattle!}. Happy Canoe Year! Ralph Replied… ———————————————————————— Hi Phil: (01/07/09) Thank you for the kind words. While it is a lot of effort, the results are so rewarding, we forget the work involved. I am looking forward to creating a canoe for you that will give you wonderful performance and pride of ownership. Ralph C.C.B. Staff 4019 N. Narragansett Ave Chicago, IL, 60634 – To which I replied… —————————————————————————————— Hello Ralph, (01/08/09) You couldn’t have summed up my desires for this canoe you are outfitting for me more succinctly or more clearly…”wonderful performance & pride of ownership”. That is perfect! I know it will be a dream to paddle but I am expecting one problem with this boat. I know that I am going to be so mesmerized by the details and overwhelmed at the professional craftsmanship that I will have a hard time keeping my eyes on the water and my intended course of travel. To insure safety I may have to take my maiden voyage on dry land in my Moms back yard for an hour or two. This will be the 4th canoe at my house but I am more excited now then when I got my first one. My Wife knows me well enough that she wasn’t even surprised when I told her I bought a canoe in Chicago; all she said was…”the other boats are outside but I guess for this one we have to clean out that side of the garage”. Bless her heart; but perhaps it helps that as a true Canadian from Vancouver Island she understands our obsession because paddling runs in the blood up there. Her biggest concern was that we were going to use the “Canadienne” on our Bowron Lakes trip this June instead of her Grandfathers 1968 fiberglass “Frontiersman” from Abbotsford BC. In his memory we will paddle the “Frontiersman” but I will be anxious to repeat the trip in the “Canadienne” so we can enjoy them both. As we discussed regarding our “Canadienne” project I am looking forward to owning, paddling, and cherishing this boat once completed. I am thrilled and honored that you have the time to re-outfit the 17′ Old Town Kevlar Hull with your beautiful custom wood work. We will of course have the brass end caps with the SOP fleur-di-lis, and I would love to have one of your dated brass plaques commemorating our project. I know you have Ash & Mahogany available but please use your discretion to use either or a combination of both to create contrasting colors. I respect and trust your judgment more than anything. Please feel free to use your practiced eye to create the functional beauty as you see fit when re-doing the seats, thwarts, and carrying yoke as well. One last consideration we did not discuss is keel strips or “bang plates”. I will be landing and launching on many a rocky shore so I think we should add those as well. Please let me know the additional expense and I will send you another down payment soon. We have plenty of time for completion since my first trip is planned for Moms backyard on Monday 12/28/09; perhaps a short float on the Fox or Nippersink and then of course the New Years Day Paddle on 1/1/10. If it is done sooner and you want it moved I will of course arrange for payment, pick up, and storage. Happy Canoe Year! Phil Meyer P.S. Was fortunate to see 70+ Bald Eagles on one of my favorite two hour paddle trips yesterday. After 100+ times down this stretch of the Green River I am still excited about that next bend in the river for it is always a new experience. I then heard nothing from Ralph for 4 months but then out of the blue I was pleased to receive the final invoice as well as a packet of photos detailing the work progression on the boat. After reviewing the photos I had a few questions about the boat and a couple of small requests. I wanted a center thwart with a carrying yoke notch and I also wanted Kevlar “Bang Plate” strips under the keel to help prevent damage. I could not wait until the New Year to see and paddle this boat so I planned a trip to Chicago for late May 2009 to pick up the boat. I then penned this email to Ralph… Hello Ralph, (04/14/09) Thank you so much for the pictures that you included with the final invoice for my “Ralph-Fitted Canadienne”. It looks absolutely beautiful and I am wishing I were there to pick it up & take it out for her maiden voyage. The mahogany, brass, and ash combination give it a regal yet durable appearance. The custom work you did on the seats and braces is spectacular. I was paddling yesterday in my white water Clipper under sunny, rainy, and hail strewn skies {typical NW Springtime}. I will send payment within a couple days but I will not be able to pick her up until the last week in May. If it will be in the way let me know and I will have my brother pick it up sooner but I would rather be there in person to shake your hand and tie the knots myself {my brother is not so good at the Truckers Hitch}. I will be home for a visit in May and that would be an opportune time to pick up the boat and install the storage rack in my Moms garage. I hope you still have an “Outfitted by Ralph Friese” brass plaque to add to the bow Fleur di Lis? How do we tie down the bow and stern for transportation {& for lining}? There was a hoop/hook on the original Old Town outfitting; do we reinstall that or make a hand hold? Speaking of hand holds, where is the best place to grab hold when two people are transporting over a short distance? Shudder at the thought but do we drill a hole through the Fleur di Lis and the Gunwale to string a rope through? I notice that the center yoke is flattened for portaging, do you still carve out a little neck nook or do we just wrap the yoke with a thin towell for padding during those long 1+ mile portages? We had spoken of some “Bang Plates” for the hull because I will be landing and launching on many a rocky shore. My passengers won’t like it when I tell them they have to disembark when the water is still 2 feet deep so they don’t scratch my boat. Many thanks for all your beautifully skilled work. I do not know of Mr. Watson but he certainly sounds like an interesting person to spend some time with. Happy Trails, Phil… ———————————————————— Hi Phil: (04/15/09) Glad you like the pictures. In carrying it, you grab under the rounded end of the decks to lift it. I can install a brass ring on the forward deck for tying down. A brass plate is on the bow floatation bulkhead with your name on it. A clamp on carrying yoke could be clamped on just in front of the center thwart for those times you need to portage it over a longer distance. Otherwise, the center thwart matches the bow and stern thwart and looks a little more pleasing. They are shaped in a more traditional way than the modern mass-produced ones we sell for replacements. As for lining, you should not use a deck fitting for lining as that can result in the craft capsizing if the current pulls the bow away from the lining rope. A better way is to make a loop of rope held behind the deck by a paddle stuck under the deck, and made snug so the pull is under the bow. This keeps the craft on the surface and the current has little effect as you pull it. You are lifting the craft over the water! We can show you this when you come in May. Am looking forward to seeing you again. Ralph FRESE C.C.B. Staff 4019 N. Narragansett Ave Chicago, IL, 60634 Still no mention about these “Bang Plates” that I was hoping to have installed so I sent Ralph this message… Hi Ralph, (04/16/09) Thanks for all the information. I think the brass ring on the forward deck would be helpful so it would be great if you could add that. I have always lined my other boats from a deck fitting and I have indeed had some close calls. Lowering the point of pulling force makes sense & I will be eager to learn your lining technique when I come to pick up the boat. Thanks for the nice touch on the brass plaque. How about the bang plates for the keel? Checks are in the mail tomorrow. Thanks, Phil… I then received this final email from Ralph… Hi Phil: The bow and stern are too fine to have 3/8″ brass stem bands attached. And gluing on the Kevlar felt strips as they do on Royalex craft looks too ugly, detracting from the clean lines of the hull and telling everyone you are not profficient in your paddling skills. Ralph C.C.B. Staff 4019 N. Narragansett Ave Chicago, IL, 60634 I told Ralph to design the boat the way he wants but I still felt a bit slighted that he didn’t want to put on these Kevlar keel strips that I had requested. Not only did he not want to put them on but he also implied that perhaps I needed them due to my in-adequate paddling skills; ouch. I will admit I was a bit offended but I did not want to push the issue so I let it go and anxiously awaited the date when I could pick up the boat. I arrived at the Chicago Land Canoe Base at 12:30 P.M. on Saturday 5/30/09 brimming with anticipation and ready to see this beautiful boat. I was going to bring my Mom to help pick up the boat but she knew that due to my excitement and Ralph’s story telling acumen that this was going to be a 2-hour affair. I recruited my Brother to come along with his large van, camera, extra muscle, and ample roof rack. Ralph was happy to see us and welcomed us with his usual jovial and enigmatic self. The reunion was friendly and the stories of course were many. After touring the shop and reviewing all his current projects we finally made our way out back to the double door garage across the alleyway. I didn’t realize he had all this extra storage space but I was happy to know that my new boat was stored inside out of the weather. My other boats are all stored outdoors but to keep this boat and its woodwork in good condition Ralph informed me that …”the only place to store and care for a wooden boat is indoors.” He popped the door and there it was, there was my new boat sitting next to a 24 foot voyageur canoe with apparent birch bark construction. The “Canadienne” that Ralph outfitted for me was absolutely beautiful and far surpassed my expectations. It was and is one of the most beautiful boats I have ever seen. The Brass was glimmering, the woodwork was shimmering, and the craftsmanship was impeccable. The durability of the fiberglass/Kevlar hull married to the handcrafted wood and brass outfitting to me is the perfect harmony of new and old technology. On the bow was the all important silver dollar sized plaque that proudly proclaimed “Outfitted by Ralph Frese for Phil Meyer 05/2009. After discussing at length the construction techniques, the storage requirements, and the maintenance we were finally ready to load and go. Yet we were not to escape without one more classic Ralph story. “That big canoe in there, Is that a real Birch Bark canoe?” my brother asked him. “Why Yes, that is a genuine imitation birch bark canoe constructed with fiberglass and roofing tar.” He said with a chuckle. I helped design and build 4 of them in the 1970’s for a Hollywood movie called “Centennial”. They called me to consult on the types of boats the Plains Indians used. They wanted their movie to be accurate so they sent me some pictures of the boats they planned to use. They sent me pictures of Cedar Strip canoes for goodness sake! I told them come on you guys! The Plains Indians didn’t have Cedar trees large enough to make these boats; in that era they were exclusively Birch Bark and Willow construction. So they then asked me to help them build some, so I did.” That was Ralph Frese, always the educator, quite often the instigator, but always the problem solver. The “Canadienne” that Ralph outfitted for me is a dream to own and to paddle; I now finally have a boat that matches my beautiful paddle. I don’t know when I am going to get “The Ralph” out to Seattle but before it leaves the Mid-West I see a trip to Ely and the Boundary Waters. I am fortunate that for now it lives in my sister’s garage on the banks of the Fox River {Thank you Martha & Mike for your understanding!}. It is a prized possession that represents far more than one can see on the surface. To me this boat is a representation of one mans passion to accurately reflect and share the past, present, and future of human powered water travel on the North American Continent. At this point I can only visit once a year but every time I see this boat I smile. I think about Ralph, his big heart, his passion, and his penchant to tell loooong stories. I was fortunate enough to paddle it in the 2010 and 2011 New Years Day Paddle flotilla. I was beaming with pride as other participants with envious eyes were checking out my boat as it sat on the frozen grass. Ralph was excited to see and speak to me on both of those occasions but I think he was even more excited to see this boat that he hand crafted being utilized and loved. He worked on and outfitted countless boats over his storied career but it was easy to see that his personal love for each boat did not end when they left his shop. On the contrary, they are his many children and I think his heart warmed by seeing the joy his craftsmanship brought to other people; I believe it enhanced his personal pride. He was a true canoe pioneer the likes of which we are un-likely to ever see again. He was an advocate, he was a spokesman, he was an educator, and he was a friend to all. Many will miss him but none will forget him, his passion, and his magnanimous personality; I certainly know that I will not. And don’t worry Ralph; you can rest in peace because I promise not to put the “ugly” keel strips that “detract from the clean lines of the hull” on this Canadienne. I will cherish it and paddle it just as you created it as long as I shall live. Happy Canoe Year! Phil Meyer… This story started out as a quick remembrance of my time with Ralph Frese. The more I began to write the more I realized that I had much more to say. Like Ralph I am a storyteller and as such I feel the need to tell you the whole story of Ralph, the Canadienne, and me. It is long but it is from the heart. If you have 20 minutes to listen I would like to share it with you. This is my tale that I affectionately call… Canadienne’s & Keel Strips My Time With A Canoe Guru I grew up on the South Side of Chicago but for the past 20 years the inland seas and raging rivers of the North West have been my home. My family purchased a Grumman canoe in 1976 and I didn’t realize at the time that this over-sized aluminum boat would change my life and my life style forever. I quickly realized that aluminum boats don’t do so well on the steep and rocky rivers of the NW so I invested in a used Royalex boat that could handle wilderness travel as well as the rigors of the NW pool and drop rivers. I paddled alone, I paddled with friends, I paddled in the sun, I paddled in the snow, and of course I paddled in the rain. I ran every river that I thought was passable and even attempted and survived a few that were less so. You gain expedition confidence and learn your paddling limitations by traveling through all types of water, be they friendly or foe; I was eager for adventure so testing that limitation became my passion. My family in Chicago knew of this paddle crazy passion of mine so in 1994 when searching for an appropriate holiday gift one of ms Sisters sent me this peculiar looking jumbo green canvas pack with 3 inch wide leather straps, copper rivets, and an oversized clear plastic bag to stuff inside. “Umm…this looks nice but what is it for I asked her?” “I went to this canoeing store on the North side and they told me if your brother doesn’t have one he will need it; they called it a Duluth Pack and it is supposed to be for carrying gear in your canoe.” I did not understand at the time how this pack was better than roll top plastic dry bags but after my first 7-day wilderness trip I learned to love my Duluth Pack. Fast forward to 2007 when another of my Sisters saw an article in the local paper talking about a “New Years Day Paddle” on the Chicago River; we are a paddling family so it immediately grabbed her attention. I was planning a visit to Chicago for New Years and all my sister had to do was mention the fact that there is going to be a group of paddlers on the Chicago River for a New Years Day Paddle. Not knowing the logistics, the weather forecast, the route, or the reason for the paddle; I immediately got excited and said…”I am In!” I did some research from the Seattle side and that was when I first saw the name Ralph Frese and the Chicagoland Canoe Base. Wow! This is a man that lives, breathes, and loves canoes; Hmm I wonder what he is like? I first met Ralph on the frozen windswept banks of the N. Branch Chicago River on 1/1/2007. His cheerful wind blown cheeks matched his classic red Voyageur Toque that always adorned his head. The tassle at just the right angle, the steely penetrating gaze, the oversized hands, and the welcoming smile; even if you had just met Ralph he exuded the comfort and confidence of an old friend. “So you are from Seattle?” Ralph questions me. “Do you know Bob Melrick? He paddled a “Canadienne” through the Inner Passage from Alaska all the way to the Columbia River.” “On another trip he then paddled the Frasier and plans to continue adventure paddling wherever he can.” I wasn’t sure what the “Canadienne” was and I hadn’t even gotten on the water yet; but after 10 minutes of stories from Ralph my feet were already feeling the cold. I loved to hear Ralph tell the stories but I had to break myself away so I could get on the water. The paddle was a fantastic success and I was so pleased with the entire event that once I returned home to Seattle I wrote this little note to Ralph. Instead of summarizing our conversation I have included the entire text here. ———————————————————————————– Greetings Ralph, (01/03/08) As an avid paddler that currently lives in the Seattle area I never thought a New Years trip to Chicago would reward me with what has turned out to be one of my favorite paddle trips to date. As an adventure oriented person my family knows that my place of spirituality and inner peace is at the captains end of a paddle powered vessel. They searched out places to paddle while I was in town and we found your website and its link to the New Years Day Paddle. 1/2 the family was in and the other 1/2 thought we were crazy for exposing ourselves to the cold and the risk of a brisk Polar Bear swim. Undaunted we packed our wool socks, rubber booties, balaclavas, extra clothes, and hot cocoa to prepare for the big event. We were on the water by 10:15 and any thoughts of discomfort or irrational adventure were quickly erased as we slipped into the forrest canopy. I think the penultimate Chicago adventure is the New Years day Paddle down the N Branch with you and your paddle club! I am certain that I have been on more than 1,000 canoe trips in my lifetime and this one ranks as one of my top 10 favorite ever! The pristine paddle through the narrow intimate snow draped canopy was an unforgettable experience that filled one with silent reverence for the world around you. Instead of feeling out of place for being there I found myself feeling sorry for all those who could not enjoy this sensory smorgasborg. One has to balance the desire to share this beautiful experience with as many as will listen against the thought that too many here will spoil the serenity. As you have often said in your writings the water trails we travel are unique because the passage of paddle craft upon them leaves minimal or zero impact upon the environment. In no other sport do I feel such immersion in the environment as a natural participant; as oppossed to being an intruder. Many thanks for all that you do to promote this beautiful sport and fantastic event!! Happy Canoe Year! Phil Meyer PS: One of my siblings gave me a Duluth Pack purchased at your shop about 13 years ago. I have paddled and portaged it through many an adventure in the NW. I had read about the pack plenty in the writings of Bill Mason & Cliff Jacobsen and I was able to test it fully while journeying through The Bowron Lakes, Powell River Circuit, and Seyward Forrest Canoe Circuit in B.C. Sometimes the tried and true designs are better than the miracle fabrics of modern technology. Speaking of which; I was perusing your site expecting to find a Toque for sale? My Wife is Canadian so balance that with my love of canoes and I figure I better have one for my collection. Hmm…Red, Black, or Green? Cheers… To which Ralph replied… ————————————————————————————— Dear Phil: (01/04/08) Thank you ever so much for your response to our NYD paddle! I have sent a copy to our county forest preserve district commissioner, Larry Suffredin, who became interested in the North Branch after I cornered him at a meeting years ago and was responsible for getting the county to sponsor this event annually now. Also sent a copy to our FPD supt. Steve Bylina, to make him more aware of the potential use our little streams have. It is comments like yours that will have a great impact on the authorities that have the power to make the changes necessary. Thank you again. Have you seen our little clip on you tube? Look for canoe guru and also for the annual NYD. . I wish you would have had a chance to visit our shop. I might not be here next year because I am trying to sell it to retire. But I will be on the river next year anyhow- Happy Ca-New Year! C.C.B. Staff 4019 N. Narragansett Ave Chicago, IL, 60634 My siblings and I enjoyed the New Years Day Paddle so much that our participation quickly became an annual tradition. In 2008 my sister and I had convinced several other family members to come along for the New Years Day adventure (we neglected to report the numb toes, frozen fingers, and wind chilled cheeks). We still had our 1976 Grumman but we did not have enough room for the other 4 family members planning to join us; so we of course called Ralph at the shop. “Why yes I have several canoes to rent but how are you going to transport them?” To which we reported that we had two cars that could each carry a canoe but what to do with the third one? “We are bringing our trailer to the paddle so we could just put the two rental boats on board and bring them along for you.” Thank you Ralph, that would be awesome. Not only did Ralph make sure the boats were at the put in he also arranged to have a trailer at the take out so we did not have to drive them back to his shop on Narraganset. In 2009 my siblings and myself once again contacted Ralph at his shop to reserve canoes for the New Years Day Paddle. We were hoping to be lucky enough to have the canoes delivered on the trailer for us once again but Ralph told us he didn’t have an extra truck and driver to haul it. Of course Ralph was never one to dissuade a canoe trip so he offered a solution…”just stop by the shop to pick up the rental boats and we will load them on the trailer for you to use for the weekend.” That sounds great Ralph, what will be the charge for the use of the trailer? We asked. “Oh I don’t know, but we will figure something out.” He replied. This transaction was typical Ralph as in he didn’t fret the dollars and cents as much as he probably should have (he charged us $20 & zero deposit for a three day trailer rental). The money was a necessary evil for him to run his business but it was apparent that his passion was getting butts in seats and paddles into the water; the rest would then harmoniously take care of itself. In December 2009 I was fortunate enough to join my brother Matt to pick up the canoes and trailer from Ralph at his Chicagoland Canoe Base. The first thing you noticed about the Chicagoland Canoe Base was its location; it was not on the banks of some pristine waterway, or any waterway for that matter; it was smack dab in the middle of a congested graffiti covered Chicago neighborhood. I was so sure the address was incorrect or we were lost that we drove right by the shop twice. We eventually found the narrow alleyway and the backyard entrance but if it weren’t for the side yard full of canoes and canoe forms you would still question the existence of a paddling shop here in the middle of the city. Upon entering the Chicagoland Canoe Base you were instantly assured that this place is more than just a place of business, you instantly knew that this place represents somebody’s lifelong passion and dedication; that person of course is Ralph Frese. Sure the shop had the obligatory life jackets, paddles, books, clothing, and boats for sale but the inventory was sparse, some of the shelves were dusty, and the price tags were few. I have been in and around many a water sports store but this place was not a water sports store; this place is a canoe haven and I love it! Ralph was on the phone so while we waited to talk to him we enjoyed the many pictures, articles, and artifacts that decorated his shop. It was at times difficult to differentiate the artifacts from the articles that were actually for sale but then I saw it…I saw this beautiful blue canoe displayed against the wall near his office area. It was absolutely beautiful! I saw the craftsmanship of inlaid Mahogany on the gunwales, I saw hand made Ash seats carved, sanded, and lacquered to a mirror sheen. I saw brass end caps proudly protecting the bow/stern that had a spiral design which I later learned was a Brass Fleur-de-Lis {Ralph told me the Fleur-de-Lis was for him an SOP –Standard Operating Procedure} I then saw a small plaque riveted to the bow;…”Customized & Outfitted. Ralph Frese 06/08 Chicagoland Canoe Base.” I own three canoes in Seattle But I had never seen such a beautiful display of craftsmanship, functionality, and beauty all in one. It was then that I saw the part of this display boat that interested me the most; I saw a price tag. I could not believe that this beautiful boat that looked to be of museum quality was actually available for sale; and here it is at my fingertips. It was not cheap but this boat was a piece of art that deserved indoor lighting, whispered tones, and a velvet perch. I fell in love with that boat and the idea of having it in my fleet; I was getting butterflies just thinking about it. Since I live 2,500 miles away in Seattle this is not a healthy attraction for an out of town airline visitor; is it? Ralph finally got off the phone and I was instantly snapped back to reality and focusing on the task at hand, picking up the three rental canoes and trailer. I was still daydreaming about the blue canoe but I wanted to buy something here that I could keep as a treasured reminder of this shop. Ralph had a beautiful collection of hand crafted wooden paddles that seemed expensive compared to the aluminum/composite ones I use at home; but they represented Ralph’s passion to me. I looked at them all lovingly and decided I needed one here in Chicago; my many paddles and canoes are at home in Seattle but at least I will have this piece of the Chicagoland Canoe Base to use on the New Years Day Paddle. If you have ever been waiting for Ralph to stop talking you know that it could be a while; he can and will tell you one story that leads to another that leads to another. He spoke a lot and he spoke for a long time but it was never idle chatter to me; he was a man that spoke with a purpose, it just so happened that his purpose was first to inform you, then to educate you, and then to welcome you into the paddling lifestyle. We got out of there in an hour or so but not before we could see his shop and hear many of his stories about history, blacksmithing, woodworking, canoeing, sailing, museums, and the combination of them all. This after all is in essence what Ralph Frese and the Chciagoland Canoe Base is all about. The 2009 New Years Day Paddle was another fantastic trip that was enjoyed by the many participants. As usual the temperatures were low but the morale was high; and so thankfully, was the water level. I was proud to be paddling my families old 1976 Grumman but I was more than green with envy at the plethora of hand built boats that lined the frozen grass awaiting their departure. For a canoe-nut like myself this was comparable to a gear-head looking at hot rods with their hoods up at the local drive in. Ralph was there of course with his usual beaming smile, red touque, bear hug of a hand shake, and traditional “Happy Canoe Year!” salutation. I did not own one of these beautiful boats lining the put-in but I enjoyed looking at them, their construction, their rigging, and their owners. I had this beautiful new paddle in hand but I was still dreaming of a new boat; I was dreaming about that blue boat in Ralph’s shop. I did not tell the rest of my family about this fantasy of buying a boat yet but over the past couple days I was indeed eyeing up their garages, sheds, and storage spaces to assess their capacity. We began the New Years Day Paddle as a family group but the confines of the river and the obtrusion of the overhanging branches quickly separated us into a single file floating caravan. This separation also left me to my thoughts and dreams of owning and paddling a Ralph Frese outfitted canoe. This might be similar to your teenager showing up at home with an un-authorized puppy but despite the logistical obstacles I felt that beautiful blue canoe calling to me. I decided right there on that trip {just before the roll dam portage} that come what may I could not live with regret; I had to have that boat. We finished the paddle and hauled all our gear up the bank across the field and over to the parking lot. My family was all excited about the successful paddle and getting into some nice warm heated seats but I had to find Ralph to talk about that blue boat. It took a few minutes of wandering about but I finally found him near the hot cocoa hut; and fortunately for me he was in-between conversations. “Ralph…excuse me Ralph?” “Yes, Hello, hello again. How was the paddle?” He asks. “The paddle was awesome Ralph and thank you once again for organizing this event. I wanted to talk to you about that blue canoe in your shop. The one on the stands against the wall next to the office.” “Ah yes. That is a nice lake canoe for calm days and small families. What are you hoping to do with it?” “Well I just love the way it looks and I would like to get it to bring out to Seattle for some extended wilderness trips and the occasional river run.” Without even blinking an eye or hesitating to ponder the thought he tells me…”Oh, you don’t want that boat then. It is a lower volume 15 ft boat, it has sharp chines, minimal rocker, and a max load capacity of 500 lbs. It is best suited for day trips on flat water. What you need is a higher volume longer boat with more rocker, stability in surf, and higher load capacity. The type of boat you would need is the “Canadienne” and I just happened to have a used Kevlar one manufactured by Old Town at the shop.” I was full of nervous excitement with the expectation of buying this exact boat from Ralph and he instantly told me …”No, it is not the right boat for you.” I had already envisioned that boat under my butt and me paddling off into the sunset; now I was crest fallen. I thought Ralph would be excited to sell me the boat so I was stunned at his near instant decision to tell me no it isn’t right for you. He didn’t outright refuse to sell me the boat but I knew that this man was a “Canoe-Sensei” so who was I to question his judgment? I knew he told me that retirement was on the horizon so I desperately wanted to own a Ralph Frese designed boat. Even if I demanded to purchase the blue boat I knew that he would not be happy to do so. I took a deep breath as I concealed my disappointment and I asked …”so tell me about the Old Town.” “Ahh…” He says with an all knowing gleam in his eye… “ The Canadienne is an expedition quality boat that glides through the water with ease, it cuts through the waves without swamping, it hauls a massive payload, and it tracks straight and true. This model design, name, hull shape, and outfitting were designed by me specifically for wilderness travel on big water. I used to manufacture this boat but I could not keep up with production so I licensed it to Old Town. They made it for several years but they no longer do so. This particular boat is a used green 17’ model which was manufactured by the Old Town company and built with a Kevlar layer up.” “That sounds great Ralph and the boat certainly sounds better suited to my needs but what I truly love about the blue boat in your shop is the beautiful woodwork, the Brass endcaps, and the signature plaque from you and your shop.” To which he looked at me with a smile and said …”It currently has aluminum gunwales and thwarts but I have more wood and Brass in the shop; I could certainly outfit this one for you if you wish.” I had an adrenaline rush of excitement like a schoolboy on the first day of Summer Break. Wow, this boat would be a custom job outfitted just for me! “One more question Ralph…What about the small plaque that identifies the boat as a Ralph Frese custom build?” To which he chuckled and said…”I think we have a couple of those plaques around the shop somewhere.” How could I possibly refuse an offer like that? Without even discussing the price I told him…”I will take it and we can talk about it some more tomorrow when I return your rental boats and trailer.” My Mom and I arrived at the Chicagoland Canoe Base early the next day. I was flying out from O’Hare that afternoon but I knew that talking to Ralph about this boat really meant “listening” to Ralph and being educated as I did so. The boat was there and it looked to be in good condition but without the custom Ralph Frese work it really did not look like anything exceptional. He showed us the boat and described how he was going to remove all hardware to begin anew with the custom outfitting. He took us into the blacksmith shop to show us his oven, his anvil, his tools, and how he would use them all to tool the Brass. We spoke of the woodwork and I requested that he rebuild the seats as well as the gunwales, thwarts, and endcaps. “Not a problem.” He said. Then he grabbed a step stool to reach up high into the rafters to pull down two long pieces of wood. “Look at this, these are straight grain no knot pieces of Ash and Mahogany that I purchased years ago. You can’t even buy wood of this grain any more; this is what we will use on your boat.” I didn’t question his reasoning or attempt to alter his thought process {as if that were possible}; I just enjoyed the moment of conception and the creation of this “Canadienne” that will affectionately be known as “The Ralph.” It took nearly two hours to drop off the rentals, create the work plan on the “Canadienne”, and give Ralph a deposit on the job. Actually that stuff realistically took only ten minutes but the rest of the time was spent listening, observing, and absorbing. I just couldn’t get enough of Ralph, his shop, and his stories; my Mom could sense my infatuation so she kept an eye on the clock so I didn’t miss my flight back to Seattle. I didn’t plan on receiving the boat until the New Years Day Paddle one year later so I left there like an expectant father floating on a cloud of happiness, anticipation, wonder, and excitement. Waiting a whole year to receive this boat is not going to be easy but the delay-ment of gratification has its own rewards. Immediately upon my return home I penned this email to Ralph and staff to thank them for all their hard work on the New Years day Paddle. I think the flow of our communication bears relevance to my story. Instead of my re-counting the connection between us I have included the text of several of our emails here. ——————————————————————————- Hello Ralph, John, & Friends of Chicagoland Canoe Base; (01/06/09) Many thanks for all the work and planning that is required to make the annual New Years Day Paddle a fantastic event. I live in the Seattle area but was fortunate enough to participate in this event for my second time. I had such a good time on the 2008 paddle that I managed to talk several other family members into joining us for the 2009 trip. They live in the Chicago area and are certain that it must be crazy to be paddling in the Winter; but given enough hot cocoa, wool socks, neoprene, and peer pressure I was able to get them on board. Once we were afloat under the Willow Road Bridge their concerns were replaced by the youthful exuberance of discovery and exploration. Like Alice through the rabbit hole we had entered a secret world where we are welcome to explore at will; but once we are gone there is magically no trace of our passing. Many people live and work within close proximity of this branch of the Chicago River but unfortunately for them they have no idea of the secret world that can be explored in it from the seat of a canoe. Unlike last year we did not have fresh snow on the barren outstretched limbs of the mighty Oak trees that line the East Branch of the Chicago River but this year we were fortunate to have higher water. The higher water gave us a little bit faster flow, a wider channel, and a smoother ride as it allowed us to glide right over many obstacles {including the small roll dam that required some careful stepping onto “Ralph’s Plank” to negotiate a safe passage}. Many thanks to the police that stood out in the cold to coordinate traffic, many thanks to the Cook County Forest Preserve Administration for providing us a shuttle bus, and last but not least many thanks to Ralph Frese and the friends of the Chicagoland Canoe Base for making this event a must on the calendar of every Chicagoland paddler {and even one from Seattle!}. Happy Canoe Year! Ralph Replied… ———————————————————————— Hi Phil: (01/07/09) Thank you for the kind words. While it is a lot of effort, the results are so rewarding, we forget the work involved. I am looking forward to creating a canoe for you that will give you wonderful performance and pride of ownership. Ralph C.C.B. Staff 4019 N. Narragansett Ave Chicago, IL, 60634 – To which I replied… —————————————————————————————— Hello Ralph, (01/08/09) You couldn’t have summed up my desires for this canoe you are outfitting for me more succinctly or more clearly…”wonderful performance & pride of ownership”. That is perfect! I know it will be a dream to paddle but I am expecting one problem with this boat. I know that I am going to be so mesmerized by the details and overwhelmed at the professional
  18. 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,
    Wayne Koch

  19. 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.

  20. Jerry A. Carter

    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

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

    Carla Podrasky

  25. 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

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

    Paul Klonowski

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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
    Asst Professor
    Ohio State University – Newark

  31. Joyce and Fred Stone

    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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

    Eternally Grateful,

    Steve Timble

  36. 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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