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Launching the new year right
For 20 years, a floating alternative to Jan. 1 hangover

Sunday, January 08, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Chris McNamara

While thousands of Chicagoans spent New Year's Day in the customary fashion--on the couch nursing hangovers waiting for football to begin--a few hundred spent the morning paddling down the Chicago River. Tylenol and temperature be damned.

Overseeing this weird, watery parade, just as he has every New Year's for the last two decades, was Ralph Frese, for whom the nickname Mr. Canoe only begins to tell the story.

"What I do is preach about canoes," joked Frese, owner of the Chicagoland Canoe Base, 4019 N. Narragansett Ave., from which he sells, repairs and designs canoes and kayaks.

"Most people don't know the geography of where they live. They have no idea about these waterways," he said. "But if you're curious enough, there are all these little adventures within a two-hour drive of Chicago."

Maybe it was Frese's enthusiasm, or maybe it was the chance to dip the paddles in the middle of winter that lured experts and amateurs to the southern tip of the Skokie Lagoons, where a crude launch site had been built beneath a dam. "Happy Canoe Year!" they shouted to one another as they removed their watercrafts from their trucks.

The day was unseasonably warm--temperatures reached the 40s--but even on sub-zero days this river flows due to a treatment plant that warms the water.

"The North Branch of the Chicago River--often called the Skokie River--isn't utilized," says Frese. "It's a beautiful resource right in our back yard."

It also provides a beautiful winter workout, no health club membership required. Paddlers meander through twists and turns, past deer who stare quizzically and a few hardy golfers on the Chick Evans Golf Course.

It's a fit bunch that turns out for this event; you can tell that even under the layers of clothing and wetsuits. By the end of the 6.5-mile course, many were sweating under their winter hats. A few had capsized, but most completed the course unscathed, their muscles a bit sore, their spirits soaring.

"Paddling not only exercises the body but also the mind," explained Frese, who admitted that this event has a certain novel appeal. "It started as a whim, something different to do. I didn't realize it would catch on with people."

Tim Jonasson of Lockport is a regular attendee who knows enough to appreciate comfortably cool days like this one, compared with past New Year's Days that have registered below-zero temperatures.

"This is a good alternative to lying on the couch hung over," said the avid paddler as he packed up his gear. "We need to take advantage of this weather before it gets really cold and we have to hole up like rats."

- - -

Stroke ... stroke ...

Canoeing and kayaking exercise the muscles and heart in different ways. Propelling a canoe with a J-stroke on one side of the boat, according to paddling coach Jon Maleta of the Chicagoland Canoe Base, entails stroking with the paddle's blade perpendicular to the boat at the start, then ending the stroke with the blade parallel to the boat. Propelling a kayak is more of a constant, side-to-side motion with less strenuous strokes.

Other than that, advises Ralph Frese, "just keep the open side up."


Where you can dip your paddle

Chicago isn't Colorado, granted, but there are still abundant opportunities for us metropolitans to get muddy. Ralph Frese recommends these local waterways:

The lower stretch of the Des Plaines River from Willow Springs to Lockport. "It's a strange scene there, with farms, quarries and industry on the left and wilderness, complete with beaver ponds and deer, on the right."

The upper reaches of the Des Plaines River, from Wisconsin down through open meadows and wetlands.

The Rock River in Oregon, Ill., lined with sandstone cliffs crowned by white pines.

The lower Fox River. "We call it the Dells of Illinois, with stone cliffs along the river, caves, waterfalls. It's perhaps one of the most scenic regions around here."


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