DRAGON BOAT COLUMN: It’s morning, and I’m paddling a ‘dragon boat?’
BEMIDJI -- Here I am, early evening at the Pioneer office, smelling like lake water, arms feeling like they are anchored down by bowling balls, eyes red and stinging from sweat with the hum of the police scanner burping away as I write.
I decided to join the Pioneer’s Dragon Boat team, the Deadliners, this year because I have never done anything like this in my life. I am not very competitive outside video games (I feel bad for my neighbors when they hear what is said between my wife, Gina, and myself during some of our more heated games of Wii bowling) nor am I very athletic (Full disclosure: I’m not at all) but I signed on anyway.
After covering some of the racing last year, and thinking (wrongly) it didn’t look too hard, and how many chances in life will I be able to boast I helped paddle a giant boat shaped like a dragon, my thinking going in was this was going to be a piece of cake.
How wrong -- how very wrong -- I was.
I participated in a practice Wednesday evening with fellow Pioneer staff and members of their families and other friends. I figured once we got on the boat, we just would magically synch up and paddle amazingly. Well, there’s more to it than that. Paddles smacked against each other with wild clacking sounds, water was splashed in healthy amounts (my apologies to Betsy Cory, wife of Pioneer Editor Matt Cory) and I was sure glad to have left my phone, wallet and everything else at home because I’m pretty sure they would have been waterlogged beyond hope.
But the instructor was helpful. I thought we just used our arm power to best get speed. Nope. It’s mostly, from what I gathered, from your core. Twist the body to push the paddle was what we did. My arms were not that sore after the practice. But splashing around in the water practicing is a different beast from the actual race.Race Day
My day started with being awoken at about 8 a.m., feeling slightly nervous about what I was getting myself into for two reasons. One, besides attending one practice a few days before, I haven’t paddled a canoe, let alone any sort of boat, for about 12 years. Second, I was not sure how physically and mentally prepared I would be since I work nights and 8 a.m., much like the Loch Ness Monster, remains sort of a myth to me.
Jillian Gandsey, fellow reporter for the Pioneer and Blackduck American, was our team captain and sent out an email earlier in the week stating we should be at our tent behind the Carnegie no later than 9:15 a.m.
At 9:14 a.m. I was the only person there. “Did I miss some follow-up email?” I thought. I wandered around the area, hazy brained and baffled. Eventually others showed up, but it was sort of a panic moment.First Heat
Well, at about 10 a.m., we were called. Our moment, as a team, to truly see what we had. Also, I was hoping we would not end up in last place.
In the boat, I sat next to sports reporter Jack Hittinger. He seemed suspiciously spry at this odd hour considering he works nights like me. Anyway, we all got assorted in this giant boat with a dragon head at the front.
We paddled to where we were suppose to line up, with our guide barking out commands.
And with the blast of a horn, off we went. I was following the rhythm of Pioneer Director of Advertising John Svingen’s paddle as we all chanted “1 -- 2 -- 3 -- 4” to the beat of the drummer’s drum. The louder we chanted, the faster we seemed to go. Unfortunately, we got off track a couple of times due to the other three boats chanting, too, screwing up our rhythm. Svingen splashed me good a couple of times. I think on purpose.
We took third in that heat. I was impressed, because we beat my private goal of not getting last place.Second Heat
I was a little wobbly getting out of the boat, exhausted from the exertion and dizzy from hunger. Since I like to hit up food not available all the time, I forgoed a sandwich platter the team ordered and wandered off to the food trucks.
I stopped at one, ordered a cheeseburger with a side of cheesy fries. They were excellent. With renewed energy, I wandered to downtown to check out Crazy Days.
After bumming around, stopping in Book World, taking a quick nap at home and returning, we were once again summoned to the area with bright yellow life jackets and paddles.
Once again, I sat next to Jack. We were both confused because we thought the line-ups in the boat would be the same as before. They weren’t, but we let it go. I think the exhaustion of the day simply got to all of us at that point.
I was still reeling from my nap when I heard the horn go off. But I immediately got into the zone, staying on rhythm, we all this time stayed on rhythm. I can’t think of a time in recent memory that I put that much effort into a physical objective. Sweat and lake water splashed into my eyes, stinging. This times we screamed “1--2--3--4” the whole way, pushing and pushing to get a slight edge up on the boat next to us. When we passed the line, we were unsure if we got third or last because it was pretty close from what we could see in the boat.
Well, we managed to beat our first time from the morning heat. We unfortunately hit fourth place by something like half a second, which meant we were not going for a third race. Which I think was fine with all of us, because we are, for the most part, office workers and not champion dragon boaters.
What I took from the experience was that sometimes, just going ahead and signing up to do something very foreign to me can be an excellent idea. I got to paddle on a boat shaped like a dragon -- a dragon, people -- and get on Lake Bemidji for the first time since I was a little kid fishing with my grandpa. I learned the secret to paddling is in the core, not just the arms. I learned how much fun it is to just go out and do something for the heck of it. And I learned that, despite all evidence from my previous experiences, I can function at a mythical hour called 8 a.m. And I will definitely do this next year.