Return of the Dragons

By ISABEL MAKMAN for the Flathead Beacon

Over the weekend of Sept. 7 and 8, the Flathead Valley will be inundated with participants and spectators for the second annual Montana Dragon Boat Festival.

The first festival, held last year, was a booming success, as 56 dragon boats, 1,200 participants and 3,000 spectators congregated for the event. Teams came from 12 states and two Canadian provinces, and a number of local teams participated as well.

This year’s festival will see substantial growth, with 100 teams already signed up for the two-day race.

“This festival is one of the top 10 biggest dragon boat festivals in the country,” Rob Brisendine, Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau group sales manager, said. “We had to restrict registrations to ensure that we grow smart and don’t overtake the venue.”

12309 a Dragon Boat Racing

Rodrigo Robles, center, celebrates with Lethbridge Wrecking Crew team members as they cross the finish line in the first Montana Dragon Boat Festival in Bigfork in 2012. – File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Dragon boat racing is an ancient sport that originated in China more than 2,300 years ago. The boats are essentially 46-foot long canoes, with 10 seats and 20 rowers. A drummer sits in front of the first two paddlers, keeping time for each stroke, and another team member sits in the back, steering with a special oar. Team members are stationed strategically, with the strongest paddlers seated in the last four rows. Teams may have up to 24 people total, allowing for two alternate paddlers. Furthermore, the Flathead Lake Festival rules state that eight paddlers on each team must be women or the team will suffer a three second time penalty.

Teams can register for either recreational or competitive racing and the races are completed in heats of four boats. A team’s time determines whether they will make it to the championship heat on Sunday, Brisendine said.

The event was originally brought to the valley thanks to a $29,300 grant from the Montana Office of Tourism. The idea was to sponsor an activity that would use the incredible natural resources of the Flathead Valley, encourage tourism during the shoulder season and boost the economy. And the festival has accomplished all of those things, according to Brisendine, bringing enough people to the valley that many local hotels are reporting sellouts for race weekend.

“Our mission is to introduce activities that will develop a life of their own and will continue on for many, many years to come,” said Brisendine.

The Flathead Community Foundation, a nonprofit group whose goal is to connect donors with various charitable organizations in the Flathead Valley, will sponsor this year’s event, as they did the previous festival.

A portion of the registration fee will be donated to the Save a Sister initiative, as will 100 percent of the proceeds from a poster sale that the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce is currently running.

“Save a Sister provides screenings and awareness for breast cancer to people who couldn’t necessarily afford those screenings,” Brisendine said. “All the money that is raised and donated comes right back into the valley.”

Last year the festival raised $8,500 for Save a Sister and Brisendine expects this year’s donation will be even larger.

Several teams participating are comprised of breast cancer survivors.

Dragon Boat Race on Flathead Lake

A team of racers dip their paddles into Flathead Lake as they set out from the Flathead Lake Lodge to compete the Montana Dragon Boat Festival. – File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

The Summit Medical Fitness Center’s Journey to Wellness program is also promoting two teams. One, named Team C Slayers, is made up of cancer survivors as well as people currently undergoing treatment. The second team, Journey Onwards, is comprised of people with health issues like diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.

“We were so impressed with the positivity and energy at the festival that we realized it could serve as inspiration for the participants in the Journey to Wellness program,” said Dr. Pam Roberts, a certified health and wellness coach at the Journey to Wellness Program.

“We saw it as a way to help people get out of the boxes that they sometimes put themselves into when coping with severe health challenges. Our goal is to build confidence, endurance and self-efficacy as individuals and as a team.”

Cathy Lisowski, the program supervisor, added, “This has given people something to look forward to, a sense of team and friendship and trust. We have people joining from all different walks of life who may never have met each other if it weren’t for this.”

Companies and businesses are also using the dragon boat races as a way to promote camaraderie among employees.

“Companies will sponsor teams to participate in the event and they use it as a team building platform to bring their people together,” Brisendine said. “It’s a really good way to create teamwork amongst businesses and employees.”

Dragon boat racing is the eighth-fastest growing sport in the world and Brisendine attributes its popularity to the sport’s ability to unite different kinds of people, giving them a challenge that they can overcome only through cooperation and dedication.

“The camaraderie that is built around being together on a small boat and being able to paddle as one, and the team spirit and team building atmosphere is very attractive,” Brisendine said.