#115: The Last Canoe

January 21st, 2013

Rich Gross was in the back of the shop, soaking the birch bark for the box that would hold his friend’s remains.

It was going to be a replica of the box that held the ashes of missionary priest Jacques Marquette. Father Marquette, along with fur trader Louis Joliet, explored the waterways of what we would someday call the Midwest in birch bark canoes.

The birch bark that would hold Ralph Frese’s remains had been sitting since last summer in the yard behind the Portage Park canoe shop he built out of his family’s blacksmith shop.

“He may have collected this himself because he restored a birch bark a while ago. And it might be that this is from that restoration,” Gross said, coiling the hose he was using to fill old wooden bucket with a plastic bag of bark inside. “It would surprise me if it isn’t.”

Ralph Frese — environmentalist, educator, re-enactor, blacksmith and patron of canoeing — died in December. He was 86.

Chicagoland Canoe Base at Irving and Narragansett has about six more months left, shop employee Mike Otter said in January.  They’re liquidating the inventory for 30 to 50 percent off. The land will be next.

“The property’s for sale,” Otter said. “It’ll be sold probably within the next year or so, you know. It could be a couple months. It could be a year and a half. We just don’t know.”

Ralph Frese’s death made the Tribune and Sun-Times. More than a month after his passing, the website his family and friends set up for people to share memories is still getting posts.

And the regulars from the shop come by to help sell off the kayaks, oars and canoes and share memories of Ralph.

“We loved him,” Gross said. “We loved him like a dad. But he was a human being; he had his moments. Everybody has their moments. We remember the fond moments and some of the funny moments.”

Otter, the canoe shop employee and part-time puppeteer, and Gross, a mechanic turned firefighter turned suburban high school biology teacher, talked with me about canoeing and workmanship and about when the strip mall across the street was all prairie.

We talked about how a neighbor drafted into World War II and a mental hospital across the street from his dad’s blacksmith shop started Ralph on canoeing. We talked in the shop where Ralph made his amazing canoes by hand.

Gross and Otter said everything better than I ever could, so I left it be. You can download snippets of our talk below.

As we talked and the birch bark soaked, Gross eventually went back to work on a replica canoe he had been building. Ralph taught him how to make canoes. The technique he was using was even one Ralph invented and jokingly called “genuine artificial birch bark.”

Ralph had traced the birch bark pattern for the silkscreen by hand. One day, Gross, Otter, Ralph and a few other of the shop regulars set up a silkscreening operation right in the shop to put that pattern on canoe coverings.

That was about two weeks before Ralph became too sick to work, Gross said. He would die a month after that.

Ralph had other things going, other projects in the hopper right until the end. One unfinished canoe is going to a Chicago police officer. A half-complete fleur-de-lis from the blacksmith side of Ralph’s business is owed to a customer in California.

But to Gross, the canoe he’s building with the birch bark pattern he and his friend made together, that will always be Ralph Frese’s last canoe.

Click on the links below to download segments of my interview with Rich Gross and Mike Otter.

Part 1: Dumping Ralph in the Gulf of Mexico (7:44)

Part 2: An “addictive” shop (6:06)

Part 3: Ralph’s technique and German dads (6:17)

Part 4: Environmentalism, the Chicago prairie and imagination (6:23)

Part 5: How Ralph got started (2:38)

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