Web Site: http://www.canoemarathon.com/
57 Years and Still Going Strong!
The Des Plaines Canoe and Kayak Marathon
The Des Plaines Marathon, founded in 1957 by Ralph Frese, is much more than a race. It is the longest running canoe competitive and citizens' paddling event in the U.S., always held the Sunday before Memorial Day. The event had its origin when Ralph Frese was involved in the scouting program on the northwest side of Chicago. An avid paddler addicted to exploring the area's waterways, he wanted to share his passion with the young men in the program. Starting out by teaching them to build canoes and kayaks with canvas over a frame construction, he discovered fiberglass and polyester resin available with which he could build an almost scout-proof craft much less prone to damage than the canvas ones.
This led to the development of a fiberglass mold copied after a 16 foot Old Town Guide model that became the key to a kit program, allowing many scouts to build a small fleet of canoes for their unit and others. In the meantime, Ralph was guiding scout leaders on exploratory canoe trips in the area, showing them how they could add an affordable note of adventure to their programs.
Attendance on these trips reached the 100 mark at times. Before he knew it, there were about 400-500 of these little canoes made which prompted him to introduce a little bit of fun with a competition. As for the location, the Des Plaines River was close and thus, the Des Plaines Canoe Marathon came into being with the original length of about 25 miles giving impetus to the name, now shortened to a little over 19 miles.
The first race was held in the fall with low water and 25 craft made the challenging run. It was decided then to move the race to the Sunday before Memorial Day when the river was more apt to be bankfull and the trees and flowers in the bloom of spring. (Now it is the traditional race date). The second year saw 106 craft, followed by 156 the third year and 206 the fourth year. The Marathon's popularity was established, eventually reaching a cut- off limit of 1000 boats.
In scouting, the awards of or colorful embroidered patches are important recognitions to both scouts and leaders and these continue to be awarded each year to everyone finishing the event. 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.
Over the decades the event has been organized by volunteers, who eventually founded the Des Plaines River Association, whose mission is to conduct the annual race and further protection and restoration of the river. It is gratifying that this effort is still alive and well after 57 years.
From the early days of homemade canvas over frame constructed canoes, the event witnessed the evolution of design and materials in canoes, kayaks and standup paddle boards that hopefully will continue to float down the river for many more decades to come. Come and join us in 2014 and beyond!
The 57th Annual Des Plaines Canoe and Kayak Marathon will take place May 18, 2014