Updated: February 13, 2013 1:40AM
Few Lake County residents have heard of Ralph Frese, but his legacy lives on along the Des Plaines River. Frese founded the Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon and pushed to draw attention to a river which long ago had been given up as merely a dirty stream.
Frese died this week in Glenview after a lengthy illness. He owned the Chicagoland Canoe Base on the Northwest Side of Chicago, which he used to lobby for river recreation not only in the city, but in Lake County.
Frese took a bunch of Boy Scouts down the Des Plaines from Lake County to Cook County in 1957, and the river race has been run from Oak Spring Road in Libertyville to Dam No. 2 in Mount Prospect. The 56th annual running will be held next year on May 19 and we expect it to be a fitting memorial for Frese.
A self-proclaimed river rat, Frese said he came up with the idea for a canoe racing while teaching Boy Scout leaders and kids how to build canoes and explore the waterways around Chicago. “I thought, ‘Let’s have a little fun and competition, and at the same time get people out on the Des Plaines River to see how beautiful it is,” Frese said in a 1986 News-Sun interview.
Since the marathon began, the river’s condition has benefitted from the race. Water has become cleaner and the river is more navigable and accessible, partly due to Frese’s efforts; the Des Plaines River Association, which now runs the marathon; and the Lake County Forest Preserve District. One of Frese’s goals was ridding the river of the dams which in some years caused canoers to portage. Several of the dams have since been pulled out and the river back to its original run.
There is no doubt the canoe marathon increased awareness of the Des Plaines River and its environment. “The serious side of the race,” Frese said in a News-Sun interview in 1978, “is to focus attention on the river. This is a resource we should treasure, but people don’t realize its value. They don’t know what they have in their back yard.”
Thanks to Ralph Frese, we now know what’s in our back yard.