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And they're off... 60 teams compete in dragon boat races

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

After driving three-plus hours and dealing with slower-than-usual customs, Winnipeg-based Dragon Power again finished second at the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival.

But this time it wasn't the team in green that got away, but the squad clad in orange.

Peak Freaks, of Peak Performance, paddled away with the championship trophy and gold medals on Saturday. The team won the grande finale with a time of 2:29:03.

Team captain Jon Laakso was modestly celebrating the victory after the race. He said it was nice to win, but that the day was much more about having fun than competition.

"It's a good party," he said. "A nice festival."

Four teams qualified for the championships of the Gold Division. Scores were determined by adding together each team's times in the first and second qualifying heats.

The defending champions, the Wooly Irishmen, again was the team to beat, having secured the lowest time of all racers on Saturday with 2:18:01. Dragon Power had the second-lowest time with 2:19:54. Also making it to the big race were the Pine Tree Paddlers from Gregg's West Side Development.

The Peak Freaks took the lead early in the race and held on until the very end. Dragon Power needed just that much more time to overcome the Peak Freaks, who turned in a time of 2:29:03. Dragon Power finished in 2:29:57.

But as Dragon Power graciously accepted another second-place trophy, team captain Barb Hecko vowed that Bemidji had not seen the last of their northern friends.

Next year will be the team's 10th anniversary. The team plans to return "and we are going to take first place," Hecko said.

The Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival is the second such event that Dragon Power has competed in thus far this summer, Hecko said. The team plans to compete in four this year.

"We think you guys are such a class act," she said on Saturday during the closing ceremony. "We're coming back next year - and we're bringing another team with us."

When Dragon Power first arrived in Bemidji on Friday, Hecko said a teammate went into a local store and was instantly greeted by a local resident, "You're from the Canadian team, aren't you?"

Hecko said she doesn't know how the local knew such a thing. The team was not in uniform.

Dragon Meister, a team sponsored by North Country Business Products, won the Silver Division.

Despite having a team last year, this year the squad brought in some outside paddlers.

Team members said the key to winning is focus and rhythm.

"You don't have to row fast to win," Jess Anderson said.

Taking home the championship trophy in the Bronze Division was Sen Lin Hu from the Concordia Language Villages. Sen Lin Hu has remained an important team for the dragon boat festival. Its members provide the historical context and background that explains the history of dragon boat racing.

And, on Saturday, the team provided some excitement as well. The Bronze Division championship turned out to be the most exciting of the three finales. Beaver Tails from Bemidji State University's Hobson Memorial Union took the early lead, but Sen Lin Hu came from behind to take over first place, beating the Beavers by just more than one second.

On the other side of the competitive spectrum was the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce team, the Chamber Dragon Chums. The event co-sponsors, returning for a second year, brought home the Broken Paddle on Saturday, awarded in jest to the last-place team.

"We rowed our hearts out," said team captain Rae Lynn Dilly. "We had a great time even though we came in last."

And broke a boat. Although, technically, it probably wasn't the team's fault.

It was getting pretty rough on the water in the afternoon due to the increasing wind. Temporary docks had been set up to help stabilize and place the boats in position before racing. But, with the new wind gusts, the Chamber boat was knocked out of position and a screw from the dock got stuck in the boat.

"We couldn't get off the dock," Melissa Krogseng said, noting that it would have been tough to score a 2:50:54 any other way.