COLUMN: How the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival was born
After much planning and organizing, the Bemidji Rotary Club and our partner the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the first and very successful Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006.
In mid-summer 2004, I was working in my office as the executive director of the Joint Economic Development Commission, then located in the Tourist Information Center, when a young Rotarian I knew by the name of Gary Johnson walked in.
I came to know Gary when I selected him to be part of a five-member team for the month-long Rotary Group Study Exchange program to Sweden in the spring of 2000. I sponsored his membership in the Bemidji Rotary Club soon after his trip. I could tell when he sat down that he was excited about something.
His Rotarian GSE team leader Mark Erickson was from the Duluth Harbortown Rotary Club. Since 2002, the Harbortown and Superior Rotarians had partnered to produce the annual Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival. Gary had heard enough about their successful festival to want to create one along the beautiful waterfront on Lake Bemidji.
To seriously consider doing so, the organizers of the Lake Superior event encouraged Gary and the Bemidji Rotary Club to enter a team in their event to experience a festival and race first hand. To do so, Gary reported that we would have to round up at least 21 people for our team, and at least eight of those individuals had to be women.
The team members did not have to all be Rotarians but could be family members as well as friends (and friends of friends), all over the age of 12. We would also have to come up with a team T-shirt as well as a team banner for the Friday night festival parade.
Gary asked me what I thought about our Rotary Club sponsoring a team, and perhaps ultimately, our own event. Since at that time I had been a member of Rotary for 18 years, he figured I would know if the club would be interested in the idea. I said that it sounded like a good idea and in fact, told him that my wife, Sue, and I would like to be on the Bemidji Rotary team. The Rotary Board of Directors, headed by President Warren Larson, gave us the go-ahead to participate on behalf of the club.
Since we did not have too much time before the race date, Gary came up with a name for our team: The “Rowtarians.” He further designed the red and yellow team dragon-themed tee shirts for the Rowtarians. The shirts were made for us by Thunderbird Graphics in Bemidji.
I suggested that we also wear kung-fu headbands made up to give our team a unique look as well as strike fear into the hearts of the teams racing against us. My wife, Sue, got some strips of black and red Paul Bunyan plaid cloth and sewed the Rotary International symbol in the center of the headbands. The Paul Bunyan plaid would also let everyone know what town our team came from.
I was given the task of getting a banner ready for the parade. I contacted Tim Meyers of Meyers Signs and Graphics in Bemidji and gave him a copy of the design that Gary had used on the T-shirts and told him we wanted some red and black plaid on the banner. It was a real rush job for Tim, but he had a beautiful banner ready for us two days before we left for the festival.
I think some of the paint was still wet on the banner when he gave it to us, but it looked great. Paul Bunyan Communications, where Gary worked, became our first official sponsor and picked up the cost of the banner, and Bemidji Rotary picked up the cost of the T-shirts and registration.
The last job we had to do was find enough team members to qualify for the races. We had to have a minimum of 16 paddlers and one drummer, but we decided that we wanted to have a full team of 21 on our boat for the race. We started by recruiting fellow Rotarians from the Noon club and that gave us our first nine paddlers. Spouses of Rotarians gave us an additional three team members.
The remainder of our team was made up of cousins of Rotarians, Gary Johnson’s mother-in-law, sisters, and other family members, and a number of friends. We enrolled a full complement of team members, including 11 women, so we were ready to head to Barker Island in Superior, Wis., where the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival was headquartered.
The actual race was held on the water around Barker Island, not on the open water of Lake Superior, providing a nice stretch of calm water for the races. That year they had close to 90 teams signed up for the races, including a number of teams that came down from Canada.
Early on the day of the race, we were given some training on how to paddle the dragon boats that would be used in the races. The professionals from the Duluth Boat Club did the training and provided the boats for the festival. They were also in charge of recording the timing of the races.
Our team took a few practice runs on the water and then felt we were ready for the races. We were told that we were not paddling a canoe but were in a sprint race so had to learn the paddling technique that lifted the dragon boat up to the surface of the water. Gary Johnson would serve as our captain in the races that weekend as well as in the Lake Superior Festival Race in 2005.
As a novice team, we were a little worried about the competition from the veteran teams on the water. However, we did very well and had good enough times in the first two heats to be eligible for the final race in our time category. We also beat the veteran dragon boat team from Brainerd that year.
The Bemidji Rowtarian team would return to the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival again in 2005. We did not perform as well in the races as we had to paddle in light rain and wind blowing off Lake Superior, but still had fun. We spent a lot of time taking it all in both years, as we prepared to host our own event in Bemidji.
With our great natural viewing area at the Lake Bemidji waterfront for the races, a supportive community, and the help of Great White North -- a highly recommended dragon boat race management and equipment company from Toronto -- to help run the race and provide the boats and equipment, we were confident we could create a successful event. We also were fortunate to have the help of the Buena Vista Ski Patrol whose members got trained and took on the responsibility of steering the dragon boats for all practices and races.
After much planning and organizing, the Bemidji Rotary Club and our partner the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the first and very successful Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006. The festival continues Aug. 4-7, after being canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The festival has become a staple of the Bemidji community, attracting thousands of participants and spectators from across the Midwest and Canada each summer.