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updated: 12/12/2012 5:31 AM

Des Plaines River canoe marathon founder dies at 86

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  • Ralph Frese of Niles founded the Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon 50 years ago.

    Ralph Frese of Niles founded the Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon 50 years ago.
    Daily Herald file photo

  • Ralph Frese of Niles founded the Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon 50 years ago.

    Ralph Frese of Niles founded the Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon 50 years ago.
    VINCENT PIERRI/Daily Herald file photo

  • Video: Frese talks about 1 adventure

By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald Correspondent

The founder of the Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon, known throughout the state as 'Mr. Canoe,' has died.

Ralph Frese of Niles died Monday after a short battle with prostate cancer. He was 86.

His death sent shock waves through the river sport and conservation communities.

Marc Miller, director of Illinois Department of Natural Resources, remembered how Frese not only started the 19.5 mile Des Plaines canoe marathon but how he had mounted re-enactments of several French Canadian exploring expeditions.

"Ralph Frese was one of our state's leading conservationists and advocates for water trails and waterway protection," Miller said in a statement issued Tuesday. "He took great pride in inspiring many of us to join his commitment to those causes."

He added that in 2006, Frese was inducted into the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame by members of the Illinois Conservation Foundation.

Admittedly, Frese never set out to win any awards when he organized his first canoe outings as a Boy Scout leader, back in the early 1950s. He eventually wanted to give them some competition, leading him to create the race down the Des Plaines River.

The marathon, which next year will celebrate its 56th year, remains true to Frese's original vision. The sights are the same, with relatively untouched forest preserve land stretching from Lake to Cook County, with trees, flowers and wildlife on full display from Libertyville to Mount Prospect.

Participants hear only the sounds of soft swishes as their canoe paddles lightly touch spring-swelled river water.

"For the most part, you're isolated from this encroachment you have on all sides these days," said Frese, in a 1997 interview with the Daily Herald before the 40th marathon. "And, when the last canoe goes by, there's no sign anybody had been there."

Jack and Lynn Snarr of Evanston worked along side of Frese through many of the marathons for the last 40 years. Lynn remembers co-chairing the marathon with Frese during the mid-1970s, when the event had to be capped, once they reached 1,000 boats.

In recent years, they have drawn around 500 canoes, kayaks and rafts to participate. Frese paddled with his wife, Rita, in the 50th anniversary marathon, in 2007 when he was 80.

Just last summer, Frese was the honorary starter for some of the heats at the dam located on Oak River Road in Libertyville, before heading to the finish at Dam No. 2 off River Road in Mount Prospect to give out awards.

"It wasn't just his leadership that made the race endure," Jack Snarr says. "Ralph was able to recruit and inspire people to keep coming out and get enthused about all these events."

Frese is survived by his wife, Rita, and children Diane (David) Gritton, Chaz (Char) Clary and Valerie (George) Fetcho, as well as four grandchildren.

Visitation will begin at 3 p.m. leading up to an 8 p.m. funeral service on Thursday at Simkins Funeral Home, 6251 W. Dempster, Morton Grove.

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