Record number of teams ready to hit the water
Six years ago, Gary Johnson of Paul Bunyan Communications had a dream: the opportunity to for Bemidji to host dragon boat races.
After participating in the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival, Johnson couldn’t help but think while looking at the temperate waters of Lake Bemidji, “Why not here?”
Thus the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival began with 2006 marking its first year and a total of 36 dragon boat teams partaking in the races. The number of teams has grown each year, more than doubling the original lineup with 77 registered teams as of early this week.
Dragon boat teams usually consist of 20 paddlers and one drummer, putting the participant count at more than 1,600.
Johnson, the now co-chair of the Dragon Boat Festival, said he is astounded by the number of people joining in on the Bemidji event.
“It’s amazing to have that level of support in the region,” he said.
Head of marketing and festival announcer, Brian Bissonette, said he is also impressed.
“Every year we’ve grown – 77 teams this year is an all time record,” Bissonette said.
Although the festival is a local sensation, teams from around the area, including five teams from Canada will participate.
Johnson said he is pleased with the international inclusion.
“It’s a great way for our festival to grow,” he said.
Along with the increasing interest in Bemidji’s dragon boat racing, the festival will hold new activities this year.
The first annual Dragon Boat Cornhole Tournament will be held this year in the Dragon’s Den at the waterfront during the festivities. Essentially a bean bag toss, teams of two can register for $10. All proceeds from the Cornhole Tournament will go to the American Cancer Society.
“We will be incorporating Bemidji’s Relay For Life and the American Cancer Society into the Dragon Boat festival this year for the first time,” said Bissonette.
In addition to the Cornhole Tournament, the festival will host its first Survivor Tribute Race, an event in which teams of cancer survivors will race against each other. The Survivor Tribute Race will be the last dragon boat race of the morning round.
Following the event will be a recognition ceremony acknowledging those who have survived cancer and those lost to it. The Bemidji Relay for Life tent will be set up at the festival, and will have a birthday theme to celebrate the continued birthdays of survivors.
Johnson said he is happy with this new feature of the Dragon Boat Festival.
“Dragon boat races and cancer survivors have a long history,” Johnson said, “We want to build that partnership with Relay For Life.”
In its six years of existence, the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival has had businesses, clubs and a growing number of family teams participate.
Johnson said he is grateful for the local support and opportunity to give back to the Bemidji area.
“It’s becoming a nice tradition in a lot of different ways,” he said, “It’s a win-win for the community.”