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Happy Canoe Year

Thursday, December 25, 2008
Pioneer Press

With rivers around the world endangered by drought, pollution and development, the North Branch of the Chicago River offers hope -- when man makes amends, Mother Nature will help do the rest.

It all started over 20 years ago when Ralph Frese (owner of Chicagoland Canoe Base), his wife, Rita, and a couple from his canoe club took a New Year's Day canoe trip down the North Branch of the Chicago River. There was snow at the end of the trip and it was a magical journey, so they spread the word and took it again the following year, with more paddlers.

A 23-year tradition

The event grew in numbers, and now, 23 years (and trips) later, it's become a New Year's Day tradition with over 200 people paddling the North Branch -- a launch that would remind you of a Seurat's "Sunday in the Park" for paddlers.

However, what started out as recreation has become an event that promotes conservation. Some years back, at a meeting at Friends of the Morton Grove Forest Preserve, Frese met Larry Suffredin, who would become a Cook County Commissioner. Later, Suffredin, along with two other county commissioners, joined Frese on a New Year's Day trip.

Water trails

The Forest Preserve of Cook County now sponsors the trip, providing shuttles and portable toilets for the event, and installed a boat landing. "This is part of a statewide project the Illinois Department of Natural Resources plans to develop in the waterways of the six county region as water trails," said Frese.

The district also clears obstructions and deadfall in the river, and has designated the North Branch as the Ralph Frese Water Trail. Over the last 50 years, Frese, known as "Mr. Canoe," has received several awards for river conservation.

About the dams on the North Branch, he says, "We've had people spill there." He advises portaging on the right for the Winnetka Road Dam and portaging on the left for the second dam.

"Our area has so many little streams like this that with a little bit of effort -- it doesn't have to cost a fortune -- they can be developed into wonderful recreational resources," said Frese. "Of course, without the flood plain of the forest preserves, it would be a disaster, but there's also the aesthetic side. The perspective of the landscape that a paddler gets is totally different from that of a person standing on a bank."

In winter, says Frese, you can see deer, hundreds of robins in Harm's Woods, and kingfishers diving ahead of canoes, which is a good indication the fish are coming back. "Herons, which I call 'modern day pterodactyls' are here all year long, and there's always the rare chance of seeing a mink, or a coyote."

Frese's favorite part of the trip includes the section west of the Edens Expressway. "It has huge trees arcing over the river. We call them squirrel bridges."

No football

Sigrid Pilgrim, a veteran Midwest paddler, and past board member of the American Canoe Association, ran the Evanston winter pool kayaking sessions for the Chicago Whitewater Association for 14 years. She's enjoyed the New Year's trip a number of times. "Number one, it got me away from football, and it's absolutely magical when there's snow on the ground. And then there's the camaraderie."

But she notes that cold weather paddling comes with some caveats.

"In winter, the main issue is keeping warm -- having the proper clothing. Stay away from cotton. When it's wet, it won't keep you warm. Any time you're in a boat there is the possibility that you'll tip and fall in, especially since on the North Branch there are two dams that you have to portage," she warns. "These have caused people to fall in the water. Getting in and out of the boat and carrying the boat can be slippery, especially if there's snow and ice.

"The January 1st trip is not for people who have only been in a boat once in the summer or have never been in a boat before, heard about the trip and just rent a boat somewhere. People need to have experience paddling in cold weather, know how to paddle and how to handle a boat, and have the proper equipment and clothing. If in the first 10 minutes you start shaking from the cold, you won't have a good time."

Pilgrim also said that this is not a canoe trip for little kids. "They'll be sitting in a boat and gradually get colder and colder and won't have a good canoeing experience. It will be 'Daddy I'm cold and I don't like it,'" she explained.

Experience helps

"For experienced paddlers who are properly equipped, the trip can be wonderful, especially if there is snow on the ground."

George and Yvonne Ammerman of Evanston have taken the trip several times. They are long-time canoe campers, who have taken many canoe trips with the Sierra Club (including river clean-up trips), and are members of Prairie State Canoeists. Yvonne says they wear Polypro, fleece, windbreakers and canoe boots, but that even with heavy socks her feet get cold resting against the aluminum canoe.

"One year we took a thermos of tomato soup. That really helped. There are a couple of small dam portages where sometimes you need to stop and wait for people. We had our soup there," she says. "It's a great way to start the New Year."



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