BY RICH PALZEWIC
The Des Plaines River Canoe & Kayak Marathon was first held in 1957 after founder Ralph “Mr. Canoe” Frese began the event and built canoes to introduce his Boy Scout troop to the beauty of the Des Plaines River. More than 60 years later it shows no signs of slowing down.
Held on an 18.5-mile stretch of the river from Libertyville to Prospect Heights, Illinois, hundreds of paddling enthusiasts from around the country make the annual trek to the northwest suburbs of Chicago as part of their spring tradition.
Always held on the Sunday before Memorial Day weekend, this year’s event will take place May 20, 2018.
“When fiberglass first became available, Ralph Frese started building these little canoes for his Boy Scouts,” said Sigrid Pilgrim, who is an event volunteer for the race. “Once he had built a bunch of those, he took the kids out on the river. Of course one thing led to another and that started the competition. That’s the origin of how the event got its start.”
Ralph, who passed away in Dec. of 2012, was a very-well known environmentalist, so the idea of drawing attention to the beauty of the Des Plaines River (essentially in the middle of a metropolitan area) eventually led to bringing in more people from the outside. The marathon’s popularity was established, eventually reaching a cut-off limit of 1,000 boats. Last year’s event featured about 800 participants in almost 600 craft.
The first race was held in the fall of ’57 with low water, where 25 boats made the challenging run. It was decided then to move the race to its present time when the river is more apt to be bank full. It’s also one of the most scenic times of the year with the trees and flowers in the bloom of spring. The second year saw 106 craft, followed by 156 the third year and 206 the year after.
“The event has evolved just as the entire sport of paddling itself has evolved,” said Alan Pilgrim, Sigrid’s husband and event co-chair. “There are fewer canoes, and with the explosion of rec boats, sea kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (SUP), we’ve probably plateaued in the number of contestants. In 2014 we added a ‘minithon’ which is 5.25 miles for those that are less experienced. The marathon itself covers two forest preserves.”
Like last year, the Des Plaines River is now free flowing for the entire course – meaning there are no portages for the racers to worry about. Dam removal by the Lake/Cook County Forest Preserves has made that possible.
“Thanks to the dam removal, the route is much more scenic,” Alan said. “The Des Plaines River begins in (Racine County) Wisconsin. The upper section through Lake County is much narrower, winding and scenic until it reaches Cook County. There it widens noticeably, so from there to the finish line, it’s more or less a straight paddle.”
The river travels 133 miles southward from Wisconsin. It eventually meets the Kankakee River west of Channahon to form the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi.
The major concern with a spring race is a storm that could knock down trees across the route or lead to high water, especially with the just-completed winter melt before the race. Sigrid points out that in most situations, “The Des Plaines River is usually pretty benign.”
“As event organizers we are conscious of the fact that the river is subject to flooding,” added Alan. “We constantly monitor the USGS (United States Geological Survey) gauge in Grayslake, Illinois, and if it reaches certain levels on that gauge, we will call off the race. On the upper portion with the higher water, it’s a forest preserve – our main problem there would be debris blocking the passage.”
One year in the early 2000s the race was cancelled due to high water. Alan pointed out that in 2014 the water was also high, but posed no threat for the more-experienced paddlers. Participants that were not comfortable with the conditions that year were given a voucher toward the next year’s race.
In scouting, the awarding of colorful embroidered patches are important recognitions to both scouts and leaders. Now all who reach the finish line in the race receive a souvenir patch. Because the Des Plaines River had been a route of the voyageurs in the years past, a cast figure of a voyageur as the trophy was created and is still the award for certain category first-place winners.
The race in the tandem divisions are advertised as a competitive, sanctioned event, but 80-90 percent of the participants would not be considered in a racer’s category. They are simply out for a nice time on the river, many doing so with children in the boat.
Editor’s notes: For more information on the event, to register and to view past results, please CLICK HERE.
The Des Plaines River Canoe & Kayak Marathon is the second-oldest continuous running canoe race in the United States.