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Insurance costs have canoe race paddling upstream

Monday, April 18, 2005
Daily Herald
by Dave Orrick

Last year it was high water.

This year it’s a flash flood of insurance premiums that is forcing organizers of the Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon to paddle hard to keep America’s most popular canoe and kayak race afloat. And then there’s the parking scenario.

The May race, which generally attracts about 1,500 paddlers from throughout the suburbs, isn’t in any immediate danger.

But organizers acknowledge this year may be its most challenging, as it attempts to rebound from last year’s flood-forced cancellation, the first in its 48-year history.

Insurance costs have jumped an estimated 733 percent even though no one’s ever made a claim. That, combined with a forest preserve crackdown on parking near Mount Prospect, means the race will probably lose money, paddlers won’t get free T-shirts and everyone is scrambling to avert a traffic disaster at the finish line.

The unexpected spike in insurance, from $600 to around $5,000, might sound like small potatoes in terms of total dollars, and no one fears that the end of free T-shirts will ruin the race for canoeists and kayakers.

But the foundation that runs the race has only about $20,000 in its treasury, enough for one year’s race. If costs continue to rise, the race might lose its thrifty appeal: fees of just $13 to $18 per person.

Larry Liquori, president of the U.S. Canoe Association, one of only three organizations nationwide that insure canoeing events, said escalating rates are part of a national trend.

The insurance companies want to make money, and they realized they could charge whatever they can get away with, he said.

Liquori’s worst fear: Someone actually gets hurt and sues race organizers. Then races like Des Plaines would have to charge a ton.

The insurance provider that covers the race could not be reached for comment.

Even though the 19.5-mile race from Libertyville to Mount Prospect attracts serious racers from throughout the country, most of the race’s 1,500 average entrants are regular suburban folks who enjoy the camaraderie of paddlers aplenty floating downstream, followed by a finish line picnic and awards ceremony at Dam No. 2 Woods south of Euclid Avenue.

Ralph Frese, the race’s 78-year-old founder and local river rat emeritus, fears that finish-line family fun could be lost this year because, for the first time, cars won’t be able to park on the grassy field at the landing.

Nobody’s going to want to park a mile away and lug their coolers across Milwaukee Avenue, Frese says. They’re talking about having buses taking people to other forest preserves and then people driving back to load their canoes. It’s never gonna work. It’s gonna be (mayhem).

Race organizers and forest preserve officials were expected to meet this past weekend to draw up plans, which will likely include several off-site parking areas and a series of shuttle buses.

Cook County Forest Preserve Superintendent Steve Bylina Jr. announced the parking ban last year.

For the district our first charge is protecting the environment, spokesman Steve Mayberry said. There can be no exceptions.

The cars take a toll on the grass, he said, and a rainy race day could lead to a mud pit for months.

Race Chairman Don Mueggenborg predicted traffic around the area on race day, May 22, would be more of a headache than in past years, but we’ll work it all out.



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