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Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival draws thousands

Some had chickens on their heads, others sported bandanas. But, on their faces, everyone wore smiles.

The second annual Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival concluded on Saturday as 60 teams took to the water, paddling and racing toward the finish line.

And, many more came to support the teams, enjoy refreshments, or just enjoy that atmosphere and entertainment.

It was tough to estimate a head count on the number of people at the waterfront and Library Park on Saturday, but some guessed that it topped 5,000.

"It was another fantastic experience," said co-chair Gary Johnson of the Bemidji Rotary Club. "It was great, and everyone had fun."

Shelly Geerdes of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce was the other co-chair of the event. Both she and Johnson also were co-chairs of the festival last summer.

Spectators lined the sidewalk around the waterfront and filled the bleachers overlooking Lake Bemidji. Families perched along the hill leading down to the lake, and kids had fun rolling down it and splashing around in the water to cool off.

With every race, the sun-bathed audience cheered on the brightly-colored dragon boat teams, each proclaiming their team names with personalized T-shirts.

"This was our first year (competing in the races)," said Kim Williams with North Country Business Products' Dragon Meister team, which won the Silver Division. "We loved it. We're already planning for next year."

The Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival was held for the first time last summer, drawing 36 teams. This year's event attracted 63 teams to register; 60 competed on Saturday.

At its current rate, more than 80 teams may wish to compete next summer.

"I don't even want to guess," said Johnson, laughing, about how many teams may participate next summer.

Some changes were made to the festival this year - and a few additions and/or tweaks are likely for next year as well.

This year, the opening ceremony was held alongside Lake Bemidji at the waterfront. Also, floating docks were installed in the water to help get the dragon boats set before racing. The docks worked well during the morning session, but as the wind picked up in the afternoon it was difficult to keep the boats in place, Johnson said.

The boats, which are rented from Great White North in Toronto, Canada, sported the dragon heads and tails in the morning session, but due to the wind they were removed for the afternoon races.