Northern Wilds Magazine
Thunder Bay dragon boaters
Thunder Bay dragon boaters build team comradery, a closeness shared among the group of paddlers. | SUBMITTED
Along the Shore

Thunder Bay dragon boat paused, but not dead in the water

Lakehead Canoe Club has to put their Thunder Bay dragon boat festival on hold for a couple of seasons, but is looking to make a splash with the city’s planned updates for Boulevard Lake to fix the century-old dam. With the city’s plans in place to fix the dam, the Lakehead Canoe Club has a few plans of their own like improving the race track to attract more boats and take dragon boating to a competitive level.

Dragon boating, originating from China thousands of years ago, as a form of worship or ceremony, soon became popular in western society as a fundraiser, and garnering interest from novice to elite athletes. But it’s also team building, cardio, strength building, and a little healthy competition.

“It is great for fitness. It’s a full-body workout. It’s not hard on your body if you build up gradually. I think if more people understood that, they may be interested in giving it a try,” says Gail Kromm, executive of the Lakehead Canoe Club.

The beat of the drum from the dragon boat can be heard far and wide, adding to the excitement during the race.
The beat of the drum from the dragon boat can be heard far and wide, adding to the excitement during the race. | SUBMITTED

Dragon boating first came to Thunder Bay nearly 20 years ago. It was a major fundraiser for the Catholic Family Centre, Canadian Mental Health Association, and St. Joseph Care Group. After seeing the popularity of the first festival, a committee was formed and dragon boating became incorporated. A couple of years later, they recruited the Lakehead Canoe Club to help with coaching, procuring a fleet of six boats, supporting the infrastructure of Boulevard Lake, and to continue the regional paddlesport program—making the sport accessible to everyone.

“There are a lot of very competitive dragon boaters out there. I’ve never seen that many teams in Toronto, now breaking the two-minute mark,” says Kromm’s husband, Volker, commodore of the Lakehead Canoe Club. “And for us, we have never, as a local festival, anywhere in the region, have we ever come to that. So yeah, there’s definitely a shift towards a very competitive sport.”

The Thunder Bay dragon boat races take place at Boulevard Lake but the dam is in need of repair. The city has made plans to repair, which has impacted the Lakehead Canoe Club’s ability to plan a festival, let alone a race.

After nearly six years of uncertainty on dam repairs, Liberal MP Patty Hajdu announced May 31 funding for infrastructure improvement projects, including the Boulevard Lake Dam. Andrew Foulds, Current River Ward city councilor, said the environmental assessment was completed this past spring and is pretty confident that construction on the dam will begin as soon as possible. “We have budgeted money in this year’s municipal budget for the reconstruction,” he explains, “My hope is that tender then gets awarded, there is some preliminary work [that] may be done at the end of this year or early next year.”

The Kromms hope that once the dam is rehabilitated, the race course can be improved, making it a true competitive sporting event.

Kromm recognizes the difference repairs to the dam will make, but also thinks about the benefits to the park users as well as dragon boaters. “The dredging, I think, would also help with the health of the lake so that you wouldn’t have the swimming area closed down all the time,” she says, as well as improve fish life and overall water quality.

A dragon boat team consists of 21 paddlers with three main sections to your boat. In the front of the boat are the “pacers” who set the timing of their paddle, then the “engines” for power, and the “rockets” for that final thrust of power when it’s needed at the finish line. There are two other people in the boat who are not paddling: the drummer and steer. The drum beats loud to help keep time and it also helps with the adrenaline rush as they race for the finish.

Tania Hashiguchi has been an avid dragon boater for 16 years, starting first in a recreational team, but not even two years later she challenged herself and joined a competitive team, Legends. It’s been one decision that resulted in a lot of good times, lifelong friendships formed, and dedicated practices with a strict regimen. A few years back after the winter thaw, a piece of the dock drifted across the lake, so at the end of practice, the team captain thought it would be a good idea to tie up the dock to the end of the dragon boat and tow it back across the lake. The distance was roughly about a hundred meters or so.

“It felt like we were paddling in mud, the boat was barely moving,” she says.

From there, it’s become a new tradition, and if there is no dock stranded across the lake, the team will improvise and tow a teammate.

Dragon boating is more than a fundraiser or competitive sport. It’s a chance for getting all sorts of people together, from all walks of life, to break down walls and stereotypes. Everyone cheers each other on and lends a hand to paddle on a boat if needed.

There might not be a Thunder Bay dragon boat festival this year, but five or six local teams are still traveling to Superior to compete, and in a few years’ time, just listen for the sound of drumming. It will start out slow and build up. Once you hear “paddles up!” the excitement is about to begin.

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