For the first time in the 56-year history of the Des Plaines River Canoe and Kayak Marathon, the man who was its guiding force was absent.
But the memory of Ralph Frese, who died in December at the age of 86, loomed large as event co-chair Jack Snarr gave the signal to start Sunday morning at the Oak Spring Road Canoe Launch near Libertyville.
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Snarr made reference to the T-shirt from last year's marathon, which depicted a voyager standing in the woods watching the canoes float down the river. He said that's symbolic of Frese, or at least his spirit, watching the continuing progress of the races.
"So if you see a voyager standing off in the woods, wave to him," Snarr said.
The Frese family was represented by his widow, Rita, and daughter, Diane Gritton.
Rita said she absolutely felt her husband's spirit. "I feel him all around here," she said.
"This is his dream," Gritton said. "He worked to do this for so many years. He was the guy in charge. Saturday nights he was the one finishing the trophies, getting them ready for presentation the next day. He would be at the starting line. And he would travel all the way down to the end. And he then he would be here to present the awards."
Many participants in Sunday's event, including Libertyville resident Andy Cocallas, still have canoes that Frese, who owned Chicagoland Canoe Base, designed or sold.
He also mentored participants like John Wood of Grayslake and his brother-in-law Will Hamm of Arlington Heights, who were participating in the race for the 29th year in a canoe they bought from Frese.
"It's fun. We love paddling," Wood said.
Wood and Hamm were among the second-place finishers Sunday, finishing the 18.5-mile race with a time of 3 hours, 12 minutes, which Hamm attributed to working out all year long, doing pushups, sit-ups and swimming.
"It feels awesome," Wood said. "We finished first in 2002 and we have finished second a bunch of times and third a bunch of times, but as we have gotten older, it has been more fourth places and fifth places, so to all of a sudden bounce back to second place feels pretty good."
For the participants, the weather couldn't have been more perfect, although the current was slow, making the water seem "like quicksand at times," said Cocallas.
Snarr said there was a slight delay of about 10 or 15 minutes in starting because of a misunderstanding with shuttle buses.
"Other than that, a beautiful day, good water level."
The first to arrive at the finish at the Dam No. 2 Woods near Prospect Heights was Joe Johnson of Menominee, Mich. He finished with a time of 2 hours, 45 minutes.
He was particularly pleased with his negotiation of a portage near the finish.
"There was nobody in the way, and I just zipped right through and got back in the boat real quick. One of my better portages," he said.