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Being Roger Ebert for a day: “Mr. Canoe” documentary at Chicago Maritime Museum

The late Ralph Frese lMr. Canoe, leading an outing on Lake Calumet in 2004.

Credit: Dale Bowman

standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 people jammed the Chicago Maritime Museum on Friday for a showing of the nearly finished documentary ‘‘Mr. Canoe.’’

It seems right that a documentary about the late Ralph Frese drew the largest crowd in the young history of the museum. Frese provided so many boats from around the world for the museum that Grant Crowley at Crowley’s Yacht Yard is storing many.

That’s some of the impact of Frese, who owned Chicagoland Canoe Base on the Northwest Side.

Director James Forni started the documentary more than five years ago, the week before Frese died.

Forni set up a documentary in which Frese is the frame. The bulk of the documentary is clips and stories from re-enactments of two major expeditions around the Great Lakes 300 years ago, the LaSalle and Joliet/Marquette expeditions.

‘‘Mr. Canoe’’ isn’t just about Frese; it’s also about the influence of Frese.

In doing documentaries stretching over decades, one structural problem is dealing with film or video in different formats and conditions. If handled wrong, watching can be like riding an empty pickup down a rocky mountain road.

But Forni and editor Joshua Jones manage it. The documentary flows well visually. I think credit goes to Mark Sutor for the sound of it, including the storytelling and singing from the re-enactments that provide humor and background.

It reminds me of a Frese line: ‘‘Every canoe is a solution to the problems the builder had to deal with.’’

Among people in “Mr. Canoe” or working on it at the showing Friday night at the Chicago Maritime Musuem were (L-R) Rich Gross, Bill Derrah, Chuck McErney, Ken Lewis, Reed Lewis and James Forni.
Credit: Mary Ann O’Rourke/Chicago Maritime Museum

On a side note, the clips featured the late Jim ‘‘The Fox’’ Phillips, the Fox River activist immortalized by the late Mike Royko. I think they were the first I’ve seen of Phillips in action.

To pull off a deathbed ending without turning maudlin is a feat that too often fails in outdoors-related endeavors. ‘‘Mr. Canoe’’ did it with grace and strength.

A minor quibble: I did stories with Frese through the years without learning much about his early life or family life. I still don’t know much. I would have liked more on where he came from and what made him what he was.

Forni and his crew are in the final days before wrapping up the documentary, then will tackle the film-festival circuit and streaming online. To get to the finish, they have a page on Indiegogo.com, click here to for the “Mr. Canoe” page.

As I walked out to the parking lot, I passed a car with a craft strapped to a roof rack.

There’s your legacy.

The Chicago Maritime Museum is in the Bridgeport Art Center on the banks of Bubbly Creek at 35th. Click here for information on the museum.

Ralph Frese.
Credit: Dale Bowman


Early-spring signs dribble in. On SaturdayRon Wozny emailed from the Northwest Side: ‘‘Doing some yard cleaning today, and the tulips and hyacinth are popping up.’’ About the same time, Ken Gortowski posted from the far western suburbs about his neighbor’s lilac: ‘‘Walking past it earlier today, it was filled with little green buds. Somebody is being a wee bit optimistic.’’

Yes, indeed.


The Tinley Park Fishing Show celebrates 25 years Feb. 10-11 at Tinley Park High School.

Rich Komar sent the usual stack of tickets. I will send one or two, until I run out, to those who can say who was the first speaker at the show. Send answers by email (straycasts@sbcglobal.net), Facebook (Dale Bowman) or Twitter (@BowmanOutside).

Stray cast

If Frances McDormand doesn’t win best actress, the Oscars are a Louie Spray.