Ralph Frese, Chicago Canoeing Guru, Passes On

Known by the beloved term "Mr. Canoe," Frese, of Niles, pioneered and popularized paddling sports on Chicago rivers starting in the 1950s. He's a champion among environmentalists and paddling sports advocates, reflected in many awards.


Even three years ago, Ralph Frese fretted that his knees weren't in good enough shape to let him set out in a canoe. For someone who almost single-handedly pioneered and popularized the sport of canoeing on Chicago's network of waterways--the Chicago, Des Plaines, Fox and other rivers--that had to be hard.

Frese, 86, of Niles, passed away Dec. 10. Visitation will be held from 3 p.m. until the 8 p.m. service at Simkins Funeral Home in Morton Grove.

Earlier: VIDEO: Cruising Chicagoland Waterways with 'Mr. Canoe' for 70 Years

Frese was also a noted environmentalist. In his work with the Illinois Clean Streams Committee, he and other paddlers reported on the conditions of the waterways, including pollution and blockages, to government agencies. 

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A stretch of the Chicago River from Willow Road to Dempster Street, near Frese's Niles home, has been officially designated the "Ralph Frese River Trail." 

He also started and participated in many historical re-enactments of the early Voyageurs, got many Boy Scout troops out canoeing on area waterways and started the Des Plaines River Trail Marathon.

A list of Frese's other awards is included with this article. 

Friends are asking anyone who knew Frese, whether through canoeing, environmental efforts, etc., to share their memories of him at this website. There are some great stories on it--including one of how Frese single-handedly flipped over a capsized canoe, which had landed a young couple in frigid water far from shore. Freese, who was in his 70s at the time, helped as the couple climbed back into their canoe, then helped them get to shore.

More information is at chicagolandcanoebase.com, the canoe and kayaking store Frese owned and operated for decades. 

Here is the obituary from Simkins Funeral Home:

Frese, Ralph Ralph Frese, 86, of Niles, formerly of Chicago, owner of Chicagoland Canoe Base, home of "Mr. Canoe", beloved husband of Rita; loving father of Diane (David) Gritton, Chaz (Char) Clary, Valerie (George) Fetcho, and the late Scott Wayne Clary and William David Clary; dear grandfather of 4; fond brother of Gloria Frese; cherished friend of Richard Gross, Paul Ahlrich, Jon Melita, Michael Otter, William Derrah, and many others. Visitation at Simkins Funeral Home 6251 Dempster St. Morton Grove, IL 60053 Thursday 3 p.m. until time of service 8 p.m. Cremation private. In lieu of flowers, donations to a future foundation through www.chicagolandcanoebase.com appreciated. Share yourRalph stories at his blog atchicagolandcanoebase.com or sign online guestbook at www.simkinsfh.com. (847) 965-2500 


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Pat Craig December 11, 2012 at 11:07 PM
I had the priviledge of videotaping and interviewing Ralph Frese for MGTV during the New Years Day "Happy Canoe Year" event this past January. What a wonderful advocate he was for his pasttime of canoeing! His passion for the river was infectious and his presence will be sorely missed. Paddle on in peace Mr. Frese.
George D. Alpogianis December 12, 2012 at 12:13 PM
This a SAD day for all. Ralph, not only a long time resident of Niles, but one of the biggest players in the area for the protection of our natural resources and our greatly under used waterways right here in our own backyards will be GREATLY missed. Ralph and his wife Rita haves opened the eyes of 1000's, including myself and my scouts to what we really have and what we need to take care of. He has touched the lives of many and his legacy will continue to do so as we. Paddle on my brother and may you be welcomed to that lazy rolling river with open arms. Love you and miss you!!
John Kehoe December 12, 2012 at 02:25 PM
"Let's get some lunch," and off to the corner restaurant we'd go for some, in depth, canoe conversation. Thanks, Ralph - John Kehoe
Joseph LoVerde December 12, 2012 at 04:12 PM
I had the opportunity to talk with Ralph at the Night of the Roses function this year. In the brief time we spoke he educated me on the North Branch of the Chicago River and offered to help with our efforts to clean it up where it flows through our property at Tam O Shanter Golf Corse. I was captured by his passion and knowledge of our waterways. It was a pleasure talking to a sincere gentleman and true advocate for preserving our natural resources. Our thoughts and prayers are with him. Joe


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