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Dragon boat team taking dream to new level

Members of the First City Rowing Club take Bemidji's first personally owned dragon boat out for its maiden voyage earlier this year. Some area residents hope to form a league in Bemidji and form a traveling team to compete at festivals throughout the region.1 / 2
Members of the First City Crew practiced Tuesday evening in preparation of Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival races on Saturday.2 / 2

BEMIDJI - For years, Mitch Rautio paddled with the Wooly Irishmen.

However, he soon found that paddling for recreation was not enough. Instead, he and four friends established a new dragon boat team, one that placed emphasis on serious competition.

As a result, the friends formed HydraHeads. Gold finals winner in both 2008 and 2010, the HydraHeads will be competing again at this year's Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival, which features 62 teams racing Saturday and several other events today and Friday.

Despite their victories, Rautio and fellow paddlers Mark Walters, Greg Ramey, John Arenz and Mike Huerbin craved something more. They wanted a Bemidji-based traveling dragon boat team.

"It would be no different than a bowling league," Mitch Rautio remarked about Bemidji's newest club, Bemidji First City Paddling.

This may be an understatement - the HydraHeads paddlers plan to lead a summer-long league dedicated to competitive dragon boat racing.

"We want to practice one to two times a week," said Rautio. "We're all very competitive."

The dream didn't stop there. The five men also pooled their resources to purchase their own dragon boat.

"We've talked about this for years," Ramey said. "Since the HydraHeads were started."

Originally shipped from China, the new dragon boat will be presented Friday and Saturday at the festival.

"We'll be down there," said Rautio, adding the team will be recruiting members for Bemidji First City Paddling.

"First City isn't associated with any particular team," Rautio said.

Instead, the league will be looking for anyone in the Bemidji community that has an interest in paddling, and perhaps traveling.

"I think it will be a good turnout," Rautio said, "We're looking for around 50 members."

The league hopes to set up a traveling circuit, much like the out-of-town teams at Bemidji's Dragon Boat Festival.

"It would be great to go to Manitoba or Duluth," said Rautio, who has already connected with some of the Canadian teams this year. "Nothing is official yet."

In the meantime, the team intends to practice and extend the boat to people who want to rent it.

Rautio said the league could help instruct anyone who wants to use the dragon boat. Ramey said he hopes exposure of the boat on Friday and Saturday will motivate the Bemidji community to paddle more often than simply during the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival.

Further renting information will be given at the festival.

"We want to let people know it's for the use of everyone in Bemidji," Ramey said. "This festival is awesome, it inspires. If we had some kind of a vehicle for that, it would strengthen the festival."