Life and Times of Mr. Canoe

As a boat-builder and entrepreneur, historian, expedition paddler and “guerrilla organizer,” Ralph Frese earned the moniker Mr. Canoe. Documentary filmmaker James Forni was introduced to the proprietor of the Chicagoland Canoe Base (aka “The Most Unusual Canoe Shop in the U.S.”) just in time, shortly before the legendary Frese passed away in December 2012 at age 86. A tip from Frese’s closest friends introduced Forni an “interesting story.” Five years later, the filmmaker released a rich, 45-minute cinematic tribute that’s currently touring film festivals across North America. 

>> Watch the Mr. Canoe trailer on Vimeo

After receiving the suggestion, Forni first visited the Chicagoland Canoe Base on a lark, weeks before Frese was admitted to hospice and succumbed to cancer. That initial meeting with Frese and others lasted eight hours, with Forni “furiously scribbling to keep up.”

A young Ralph Frese. Archival photo provided by James Forni, Octane Rich Media

“I got back to my office, looked at the notes and thought, ‘There’s so much here!’” recalls Forni, who grew up taking short canoe trips in the Adirondacks. “It was so daunting.”

Ralph Frese’s retail store in 2012. Photo by James Forni, Octane Rich Media

Frese’s illness progressed faster than expected, and Forni’s next encounter with Mr. Canoe was mere days before the legend passed away. Captured on film on his deathbed, Frese exudes passion and vitality. “It was very challenging for us [as filmmakers],” says Forni. “That five-hour interview we conducted with him was almost a denouement.” 

A scene from the 1976 LaSalle Expedition. Archival photo provided by James Forni, Octane Rich Media

Working between other projects, Forni pieced together archival footage from Frese’s expeditions, including a 1976 reenactment of La Salle’s 1680-’81 odyssey to the Gulf of Mexico. Frese’s take involved 34-foot replica birchbark canoes and 16 youthful paddlers, none of whom abandoned the journey — despite paddling through a frigid Midwest winter and enduring a mind-boggling 500-mile highway portage. 

The full LaSalle crew in Toronto, September 1976. Archival photo provided by James Forni, Octane Rich Media

For his part, Frese was particularly fascinated by the early French explorers who claimed the majority of the North America and traveled by water to establish the territory of Louisiana and Frese’s hometown of Chicago. In researching the film, Forni was shocked at how the origin of so many American landmarks have become forgotten historical facts. Frese liked to emphasize that the French were the “unsung heroes” of the American frontier; he often highlighted that much of the United States developed from north to south, by pioneering voyageurs paddling birchbark canoes. 

This grainy footage and corresponding interviews, played over French Canadian voyageur tunes, comprise Forni’s favorite moment of his film. “For a second I was completely aligned and back in time with them and experiencing what they’d had,” he says. “As a filmmaker, you always hope to connect to a story.”

A common theme for Forni was also Frese’s role as an influencer. “He was like the classic stone dropped in a pond that sends ripples outward, a single individual having far reaching effects,” says Forni.

A scene from Mr. Canoe: Frese’s friends Reid Lewis, Rich Gross and Bill Derrah in historic garb. Photo by James Forni, Octane Rich Media

Today, Frese’s canoe shop — which was previously home to his father’s blacksmith forge — has disappeared beneath newly built condominium towers. However, a Chicago street now bears Mr. Canoe’s name, and Forni’s camera crew was on hand to capture the dedication. At the ceremony, Phil Elms, former president Chicago Maritime Society, recalled Frese’s legacy. “No matter how madcap his schemes were, the underlying effort and the intent was to preserve, and to pass along and to teach,” he said. “He found his calling, and he followed his calling.”

Order your own DVD copy of Mr. Canoe by contacting James Forni at Octane Rich Media.


— Ralph Frese’s memorial paddle, 2013

— A tribute to Canada’s Mr. Canoe, filmmaker Bill Mason

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Paddling Chicago



The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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