By Sigrid Pilgrim and Jack Snarr
A few decades ago, before rotomolding technology made low-cost plastic boats possible and thus, made it easy for people to participate in paddlesport, January 1 saw a group of knowledgeable paddlers out on the North Branch of the Chicago River with everyone descending upon a local restaurant afterwards. It wasn’t an organized trip – just a group of paddlers who had the knowledge, proper gear, and clothing, and who dared the frigid temperatures of January 1 – often with snow on the banks to enhance the beauty of the experience paddling the tranquil river. This trip was known as the “Happy Canoe Year” trip.
Eventually, this trip became too well-known, with many paddlers participating who did not have the experience and proper equipment, that the sponsors of the event, the Forest Preserves of Cook County and IPC, felt it was in the best interest of safety to postpone what was now called the Ralph Frese Memorial Trip to either April 9 or 16, with the former date fitting better in everyone’s schedules.
Granted, for some rugged individuals, the challenge for close to 30 years of paddling on – and in some cases in – the river with snow-covered banks and flood-planes, patches of fixed and floating ice, and frozen portages at Winnetka and Beckwith Dams, was not to be passed over and they have continued the lengthy New Year’s Day tradition on their own, followed of course by the traditional group-feast at Hackney’s Restaurant.
So, with the 2016 Ralph Frese Memorial Paddle scheduled for a warm Spring Sunday in mid-April, lo and behold, paddlers awoke that not-so-warm morning and were surprised to find a half-inch of snow covering the landscape, more reminiscent of the traditional Happy Canoe Years of old.
Nevertheless, more than 30 paddlers braved the temps, and the river gods only asked for one tandem sacrifice, who was ably helped by the four members of IPC’s Paddler’s Patrol. The Patrol, chaired by Andy Cocallas, who also brought six competent friends, was assisted by many Forest Preserve staff as well.
Thanks go to Justin Mercer of the Cook County Forest Preserve and his team of helpers at the registration desk, spreading sand on the icy ground and helping people safely into their boats. The takeout saw refreshments and good camaraderie. The question now is – which weekend for next year’s Ralph Frese Memorial Trip?
Keep an eye out for future IPC Illinois Paddler announcements of the 2017 Ralph Frese Memorial Trip and whatever fate befalls the Beckwith Road Dam and/or Portage!