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A do-it-yourself river paddle offers views of autumn's colors

Thursday, October 01, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Barbara Brotman

Have you gazed down from a bridge at a narrow ribbon of river and wished you could plop a canoe onto it and paddle off into the woods?

It's hard to do if you don't own a canoe. But Ralph Frese, the legendary Pied Piper of Chicago canoeing, owns canoes -- lots of them. He rents them out at the Northwest Side shop where he sells, rents and restores canoes, Chicagoland Canoe Base.

Meaning you, too, could have a canoe for a day, and some autumn day when the sun is warm and the leaves are the color of fire, that daydream could be your afternoon.

But when considering a do-it-yourself canoe trip, certain questions arise. Like, how do you get the canoe from Frese's shop to your chosen river, especially if you are not big and burly? Where do you launch the canoe? How do you get the canoe into the water and, most urgently, how do you get it out?

My friend Barbara and I decided to find out.

And the first thing we found out is that a car makes a perfectly serviceable canoe trailer. While we were completing our paperwork, Frese's assistants slid foam blocks over the boat's gunwales and placed the canoe upside down on my car's roof. They looped thick straps over the canoe and through the car cabin, tightened them and sent us on our way. I got nervous when the straps started buzzing, but the canoe stayed put.

We had decided to paddle the Des Plaines River south of the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook, one of Frese's favorite spots. When it came to launching, however, I made a strategic error.

Frese had advised me to put in south of Lake Avenue/Euclid Avenue. But because he had been away from his shop when we picked up the canoe, I hadn't asked him to show me exactly where on a map. When I saw the Camp Pine Woods entrance, a road going down to the river's east bank, I thought that must be it.

But all we saw was a high concrete ledge. Even if we could drop the canoe off its side, we couldn't get into it -- or out of it.

We decided to try a different location: Allison Woods, off Milwaukee Avenue south of Willow Road. It had a great-looking launch: a paved road sloping gently down to the water.

Now all we had to do was get the canoe off the roof of my car. Which we did, though we nearly hit my car with it as we slid it off.

We staggered with the canoe down to the water. Then off we went, a flock of geese taking flight as we headed upstream. We were on our own, on an adventure of our own making.

Unfortunately, our own making had landed us on the part of the river right next to high-traffic Milwaukee Road. We weren't hearing birds going tweet tweet but construction machinery going boom boom.

We gritted our teeth and paddled on. And then, a little farther, we got what we came for: quiet.

It was broken by the staccato sounds of a woodpecker and by unseen fish or frogs plopping into the water. A trio of deer looked up as we passed. The wind rustled through gold-colored leaves.

It was just us, the woods and the water.

Alas, we had to turn around eventually. That meant a return through the construction site, and the scariest part of this outing: Lifting the canoe onto the roof of my car. We weren't sure we could do it. And we still aren't sure, because this nice man happened to bicycle past just then and agreed to help us. We didn't even have to bat our eyelashes.

When we returned the canoe, Frese explained our launch mistake. We shouldn't have gone to Camp Pine Woods on the river's east bank but to Dam No. 2 Woods on the west bank at the same spot. We would have had a bucolic paddle that would have stopped short of Milwaukee Avenue.

We'll know for next time.

See you there, Mr. Man.

bbrotman@tribune.com

If you go



Rental option: The Chicagoland Canoe Base is at 4019 N. Narragansett Ave., Chicago. Canoe rental is $50 a day. Frese is happy to recommend his favorite paddling spots and where to launch. For details, call 773- 777-1489 or visit chicagolandcanoebase.com.

A note of caution: Sigrid Pilgrim, a board member of the Illinois Paddling Council, warns that autumn's colder air and water can be dangerous, and offered safety tips: 1. Wear a personal flotation device. 2. Dress properly in the cold (polypropylene or wool instead of cotton). 3. Avoid dams. 4. Watch out for hazards such as fallen trees that can trap and capsize a boat.

5. Bring a waterproof bag with a set of dry clothes. 6. Don't go out alone.

Be prepared: People who have not canoed or kayaked before, Pilgrim said, should take a class first or go with an experienced paddler or a club. For information on safety, classes and clubs, visit IllinoisPaddling.org.

Frese, who has been canoeing for nearly 70 years (he turned 83 on Sept. 22) said the water is still warm now and that inexperienced paddlers can choose one of the area's many shallow rivers.


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