The view from the little red kayak.

Earlier this month word came through that Ralph Freese – the owner of Chicagoland Canoe Base – had passed away. It is no exaggeration that Ralph did as much to improve the local waterways – and by extension – the overall environment as much as any person I can think of. I would put his name in the same sentence as “land” scientists such as Floyd Swink and Robert Betz. Ralph used a paddle to save the world.

I first got into a canoe in a high school PE class, and I was hooked. In college, I bought a canoe from a buddy of mine, and I’d strap it to the top of my beat up Chevelle and explore lakes in Southern Illinois. I love to hike, and I found that paddling was a watery analog to wandering across the countryside

When I moved to Oak Park the itch to paddle struck again, and in short order I found the Chicagoland Canoe Base up on Irving Park. Long story short, I wound up buying a little red kayak from them – which may be the best return on investment I ever made. That little boat and I have been to some amazing places – which would surely have made Ralph proud.

There are certainly many others that knew Ralph much better than I, but once he learned that I was a horticulturist he’d engage me about the local plant and tree world. I would say as a naturalist that he was very well versed. I shouldn’t be surprised – one sees a whole new world from the seat of a boat. We spent the better part of an hour once talking about Redbuds and some old conifers (junipers?) growing in the bluffs of the Fox.

Why I appreciated Ralph was when I left the store, I always felt that I needed to do more for nature. If you didn’t feel inspired when you left the Canoe Base, you weren’t listening. I suspect he inspired hundreds, maybe thousands in that way. His store was indeed a base that outfitted paddlers who traveled the world.

The thing I still love about paddling is this: I think it is as close to a time machine as we might find. What I mean is that we live in an Illinois landscape that has very much changed. When paddling on certain stretches of the Des Plaines, the Fox, the Kankakee or the Kishwaukee one might get a glimpse of the natural world that has mostly vanished. For this kayaker Ralph Freese provided a venue and helped spark that kind of experience.

So Ralph is gone. I’m going to celebrate a life really well lived. I’m skeptical about the afterlife, but it’s fun to think that Ralph is now finding his way, mapping new terrain, paddling and nudging a new boat along a river of stars.

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Dave Coulter

I have been a horticulturist for thirty years working in the Chicago area and beyond. I have lived in Oak Park for over thirteen years. My writing has recently appeared in the journal Ecological Restoration...