Push through the huge front door to Ralph Frese's shop, The Chicagoland Canoe Base, and your eyes can't help but wander. Eye candy in the form of canoes and kayaks of all sorts are stacked throughout the store, as are paddles, books, drysuits, floatation devices and other accessories. It's all a virtual explosion of Crayola colors. And that's just the beginning. Out back you'll find rental canoes and kayaks stacked in tall racks, and in the blacksmith shop you're likely to find Frese at work restoring an antique wooden canoe.
"I got started paddling in 1940," Frese said. "I was 14 when I first dropped my Mead Glider kayak into the Chicago River." That wasn't as easy as it sounds as the river wasn't exactly next door. Working in his father's blacksmith shop, Frese rigged together a wagon hitch that he used to attach his kayak to his bicycle. He then pedaled a number of miles to the river for a day of fun. Later, Frese began building canoes when his own sons were involved in the Boy Scouts, and Chicagoland Canoe Base was soon born.
A staunch conservationist and historian, Frese's love of the canoe comes in a number of forms. He collects, repairs and restores canoes and kayaks and has a particular passion for birch bark canoes. He designed the "Canadienne," a canoe that was later licensed to Old Town Canoe Company. Frese built replica voyageur canoes for a number of motion pictures when Hollywood came calling, and he has taken part in several re-enactments over the years, including a memorable a 3000-plus mile journey from Canada to the Arkansas River and back to honor the 300th anniversary of Joliet and Marquette's journey through our area.
At 78, Frese hardly looks or acts the part. His style and demeanor is that of a man half his age, and he's still the voice of reason when it comes to pushing public officials to keep our waterways clean. If you stop by the Chicagoland Canoe Base and meet Ralph Frese, you won't feel much like leaving, as you're certain to get sucked into one of his stories. And make sure you're prepared to spend some time there, because the next time Frese tells a short story will be the first time he tells a short story.
Centerstage Reviewer: Dennis Foley