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'Bigger than ever': Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival kicks off today, teams continue practicing for Saturday's races

Members of the Dragon Riders, a returning team representing Walmart, help each other out of the dragon boat following a Wednesday evening practice down at the Lake Bemidji waterfront. Pioneer Photo/Bethany Wesley

It's officially Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival Week!

Mayor Richard Lehmann on Tuesday signed a proclamation declaring Aug. 2-7 as Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival Week to honor the five-year-old "family-friendly community event" that showcases Lake Bemidji, Library Park and Paul Bunyan Park.

The Dragon Boat Festival kicks off at 5 p.m. tonight with the opening of the food court and Dragon's Den. Entertainment tonight will be provided by Mix 103.7.

The highlights of the festival, of course, are Saturday's all-day dragon boat races, in which teams of 17-21 people try to paddle in unison to beat out the competition.

This year, a record-setting 69 teams are registered (last year there were 66 teams).

"We're looking good," said co-chair Gary Johnson with Bemidji Rotary Club. "It's going to be bigger than ever."

This year, there are several new teams, including a group from Duluth, Minn., that has local event planners and participants especially excited.

The Invincible Dragons, as the team is called, is composed of members of the Duluth Boat Club.

To understand the connection, you'd have to go back to the very beginning of the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival, when the event was just an idea. Rotarians went to the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival in Duluth, where the local Rotary clubs have long had a successful event.

Local planners were impressed and decided to continue forward started working toward beginning our own local festival. They worked out a partnership with the Buena Vista Ski Patrol, whose members would serve as the steers men and women for teams competing in Bemidji.

To serve as steers people, Buena Vista members traveled to Duluth and learned from that festival's steers people: Duluth Boat Club members.

"The Buena Vista Ski Patrol worked with the Duluth Boat Club to get trained," Johnson said.

The two groups have gotten to know one another, he noted.

"They've created that relationship," Johnson said. "They've been wanting to come over here."

But the Duluth team, while creating some buzz, is far from the only new team. Other newbies include the 1212 Crew, a team comprised of family and friends of the Zachman family; Nice Assets, a team representing the Leech lake Band of Ojibwe; and a team from Baudette, Minn.

"We've got quite a few new teams, which is actually kind of fun," Johnson said.

Many teams are returning, including the 2009 champions, the Cedar River Gang.

Another returning team is The Eh Team from Canada, one of three Canadian teams that were going to come to Bemidji. But a conflicting schedule is keeping the two other Canadian teams away this year,

This weekend also features an important qualifying dragon boat competition in Winnipeg, Johnson said.

But The Eh Team - which was here in 2008 but did not make it in 2009 - didn't want to miss out on Bemidji.

"They're somehow going to try to do both (events)," Johnson said.