Happy Canoe Year
Thursday, December 25, 2008
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
"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."