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Dragon boat races draw 69 paddling teams, thousands of spectators

From left, Porschia Olson, 9, of Otsego, Minn., James Palmer, 10, of Bemidji, and Kaela Schultz, 7, of Grand Forks, N.D., make dragon masks Saturday in the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area crafts tent at the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

With just a whisper of wind from the right direction, balmy temperatures and good cheer throughout, the fifth annual Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival made for a perfect Saturday on the waterfront.

Add downtown Crazy Daze fun, and Bemidji was nearly bursting at the seams.

"Sure a lot of people," said Virginia Youngdahl of Bemidji, as she and her husband, Gunard, set up to watch the afternoon race heats.

Of the 69 teams vying for trophies, and hoping to avoid the infamous last-place Broken Paddle award, a few had ringers aboard their boats. The Wiki Wiki Wahini team (Hawaiian for Fast Women) from the Asian Lions Dance Team didn't launch their own boat, but some of the members paddled with the Headwaters Canoe and Kayak HydraHeads, the Bemidji Rotary Rowtarians and the Cedar River Gang.

"This is all about fun," said Emcee Brian Bissonnette of festival co-sponsor Paul Bunyan Telephone. "There's no fiscal reward."

Belissa Ho, a member of the Asian Lions was serving stir fry at the teams' food booth. She said the team took the women's gold medal in Chattanooga, Tenn., two weeks ago to win the honor of representing the United States at the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Races in 2012.

As Drew and Lori Hildenbrand prepared to paddle with the Bemidji Chamber of Commerce Babe the Blue Boat team, they handed off their children - all wearing matching blue T-shirts - to grandparents.

"I dressed them alike so I could find them in the crowd," Drew said. "This couldn't be a better day."

Lori Paris, president of festival co-sponsor Bemidji Chamber president, agreed enthusiastically.

"Fabulous," she said. "Everybody says it seems smooth as silk."

The fun is obvious in the fanciful team names and imaginative décor of the camps in the Team Village.

The Zetah Zea Dawgz set up a Viking ship dragon-head prow and dragon tail at the entrance and exit of their camp.

Pinnacle Publishing Pinnacle Paddlers built an entire cardboard castle complete with moat, drawbridge and gargoyle. Their slogan: "Training Dragons Since 1992."

Great River Dentistry paddlers called themselves The Chicken Ship ("We cater to chickens")and added headgear in the shape of setting hens to their festival attire.

Bemidji State University also filled a boat. The team added a pirate theme to the school mascot as the Beavaars! Jonathan Lembrick, a member of the Beavaars! bit on a passerby's riddle about pirates' favorite restaurant - "Aar-bees."

The Eh Team from Winnipeg made sure their competitors recognized the international flavor of the festival in their red T-shirts and maple leaf emblems.

"We were second last year and second the year before," said Mike Treacy, member of The Eh Team. "I'm the steersman. I drive the boat."

He added that the team as a whole hopes to break the second-place streak, and he, personally, aims to steer the boat straight.

The Eh Team also launched the only boat with a pregnant team member. Kristi Bissonnette had paddled all previous four years of the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival, but as she is expecting a baby in two months she was disqualified from paddling for year five.

"I went through all the rules and regulations," Kristi said.

However, she found a loophole; there's nothing in the rulebook that precludes her from serving as the drummer to mark the timing of the paddlers' strokes. Not that The Eh Team members need much help keeping their rhythm, she said.