BEMIDJI -- Scott Turn and Brian Bissonette know what it’s like to paddle a dragon boat, but both agree they’re more suited to be on land during the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival. And the festival wouldn’t be nearly as special without the two longest-serving committee members.
Turn is the main guy behind the scenes, and Bissonette is the voice of the festival, which is taking place this week for the 15th year.
“I’m a horrible paddler,” said Bissonette, marketing supervisor for title sponsor Paul Bunyan Communications. “I think everyone within three rows of me was soaking wet.”
Turn also tried his hand at paddling during the early years of the festival, but quickly found out he needed to be available to deal with details on shore.
“It got to be where I was supposed to be racing, but there was some other thing I had to do first,” said Turn, assistant director of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce. “So I thought I was much better being an alternate.”
It all began in 2006 as a joint venture between the Chamber and Bemidji Rotary. As president of the Rotary club, Turn took on the lead role in organizing the festival, and Bissonette jumped on board representing the title sponsor. The event was a hit from the start, with a strong core of volunteers and sponsors, and the ideal venue at the Lake Bemidji waterfront. It attracted upwards of 75 teams from throughout the region and Canada.
The extravaganza fell victim to COVID-19 last year, and this year’s field will be a bit smaller. But even though Canadian teams can’t make the trip this year, the 15th festival will be one to remember.
“Even if we were going to pull something off last year, it wasn’t going to have the feel of a Dragon Boat festival,” Turn said. “It seems like this year has been a lot of two steps forward, one step back. But we have so many great resources here in Bemidji for people who want to help. There’s always been that person for us who says ‘yes.’ That in a nutshell has really gotten the festival to what it is today.”
It’s a year-round effort for Scott Turn. He spends the entire week at the festival grounds, beginning on Sunday night and Monday morning when the boats arrive from Great White North, a Toronto-based company that has provided equipment all 15 years. After the festival ends, work begins on planning for the next year.
“Scott has been the driving force behind this festival since the beginning,” Bissonette said. “We’ve had a lot of other great volunteers, but Scott is really the heart of the festival. He’s coordinating everything from start to finish. I can’t imagine us trying to do this without Scott.”
In addition to his marketing efforts to keep the festival in the news, Bissonette has been on the race-day microphone from the start. In the first few years, he did it all by himself, talking almost nonstop for eight hours. He has since been joined by Mark Ricci, and the announcers make the Lake Bemidji festival special for participants and spectators.
“Like everybody else, I really didn’t know anything about dragon boat racing, so it was a learning curve for all of us,” Bissonette said. “There really wasn’t a playbook. I couldn’t call anybody. The first couple of years I had to figure out what works and how to do this. Through the years I’ve been able to fine-tune it.
"Obviously, we do the play-by-play as they’re coming down each race, but also we’re introducing each team as they’re going on to the docks and as they’re coming back to the docks. We’re so blessed that everybody can see everything from beginning to end.”
Turn said many out-of-town teams appreciate the Lake Bemidji event because it’s more than just a boat race.
“They love the fun factor we have here,” he said. “Most festivals don’t have announcers. They don’t have a beer tent, music or any of that. It’s just racing. So they come to our event because they like racing but they like to have fun and they like how the community comes together. It’s always interesting to hear their reactions. Even Great White North … they go all over the country, and they say Bemidji is probably the No. 2 festival based on getting the community involved. The one in Toronto is very big. They get 500, 600 teams and get the community to come out. But they say no other festivals are like ours.”