50th Des Plaines canoe marathon still brings back memories

Chris McElroy got the idea a year ago and even if the plan built muscle in his mind across 365 days, he did not lift a blessed paddle or hoist a hefty weight to build muscle in his arms.

But he talked a good enough game to sell the proposal to his mother, and even more persuasively to his brother David. Sure, mom said, you can borrow the canoe in the garage your dad used to use. Count me in, David said, of the sentimental plan to honor their late father.

It was a windy, unseasonably cold third Sunday in May for the 50th Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon. But the brothers McElroy generated more than their share of warmth paddling canoe No. 1, the same one that their father David and his friend Dale Francis paddled to third place among the 25 entered in the first marathon in 1957.

"The boat's older than we are," Chris McElroy, 45, of Deerfield, Ill., said. "It was very tiring. Especially when you don't have any experience."

Practice? Nah.

The sleek, green, fiberglass canoe looked pretty familiar to Francis, 68, a one-time scoutmaster with the McElroys' father. Francis now lives in Florida, but was in the area for a family affair. Chris took the credit, or rap, for dreaming up this homage to his father, who died about 15 years ago of lung cancer.

"I thought it would be fun," Chris McElroy said.

After 5¼ hours of paddling in the 18½-mile race, David McElroy, 38, of Algonquin, didn't seem poised to kick up his heels. He fell in the water after the finish. Are you tired, David? "Absolutely," he said. Are you wet, David? "Absolutely," he said.

The race started in Libertyville and finished in Mt. Prospect.

But it was officially started as a Boy Scout merit badge program a half-century ago by Ralph Frese, Chicago's guru of canoeing. The white-bearded Frese, 80, organized the first Des Plaines race, competed in the first 30 and has periodically since, including this year in canoe No. 50 with his daughter Diane Gritton, taking 5 hours 26 minutes.

"The 50th?" Frese said. "By gosh, I had to do it. I never had any idea it would last this long. Man, am I stiff."

About 700 canoes entered, competing for colorful finishers' patches that tout voyage r history. The all-time high is 1,000 canoes, several times. Frese constructed his distinctive, high-sided canoe, enigmatically described as made from "genuine, artificial birch bark, 100 percent vinyl and genuine artificial spruce wood."

Frese was more specific about canoe enthusiasts being clean-living wilderness participants.

"Every little creek and ditch is its own adventure," Frese said. "And every river has its own story to tell. We (the race) have the only trail through nature that really leaves no trace."

Even the swiftest racers did not leave a ripple in the water after passing. Partners Brad Taggett of Mayville, Wis., and Jim Larsen of Escanaba, Mich., were the first to reach dry land, in 2:38, their synchronized strokes to the finish leaving them breathless.

"There's no water in the river," Taggett said in reference to the low levels.

No water? Beth Schulter of Oconomowoc, Wis., and her partner Neil Hanks of Mequon, Wis., sniffed at that comment.

"They were whining," Schulter teased her friends. "As a team we go very well in shallow water."

On an overcast day, and with the wind at their backs, paddlers with wet clothing courted hypothermia.

The combination of canoes, bouncy water, significant wind, and steering challenges, created some early-race collisions. As paddler Gareth Stevens of Hubertus, Wis., noted, "There was all kinds of happy mayhem at the start."

Unlike long-distance running events, however, canoes tend to space themselves out. Racers glided under the yellow finish banner one-by-one rather than in clusters.

Long-time local competitors and husband-and-wife team Jeff and Chris Palmquist of Geneva, finished cold and wet in 2:55.

"It's never boring," Jeff Palmquist said.

It was not a dull day for Francis, who never pictured himself on the Des Plaines River shore a half-century after racing in the first marathon.

"It has gotten a lot bigger," Francis said. "We knew most everybody in the first one."

For the sons of Francis' old partner, the post-mortems hinted at one-and-done canoeing.

Still, David McElroy deadpanned this might be the beginning of a grand racing career.

"Busse Woods here we come," he said.