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Putting the Fun in Fundraising

By Danielle Piekarski

Summertime in the Midwest is a highly anticipated season. With a fleeting five-month window of warm weather, many of us try to experience as much outdoor adventure as we can before the area is once again blanketed with snow. Whether it is heading to the lake, catching some live music, or playing your favorite sport, everyone has a summer pastime they look forward to. One annual event that has become a beloved tradition for locals is the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival in Minnesota.


The Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival, now in its 17th year, was started by the Bemidji Chamber of Commerce and the Bemidji Rotary Club. A group of Rotarians participated in the 2005 Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival and were inspired by the event. They agreed that Lake Bemidji would be the perfect venue to host such an event, since a large part of the city is connected by the shoreline. Brian Bissonette, long-time volunteer and marketing organizer for the Festival said, “We were skeptical the first year, but it has really come around. Everyone in the region is familiar with the festival now. It has become the fabric of summer in the area.”


What originally began as a one day-only event, has grown into nearly a full week of fundraising festivities. On Tuesday, there are teams that begin practicing their paddling skills, and continue throughout the week.

Wednesday, the big festival kick-off takes place with a taco feed hosted by Sanford Health. This all-day event serves as a fundraiser for the United Way of Bemidji Area. The meal, which is offered for $10, has become incredibly popular over the years, and in 2022 raised approximately $30,000. Wednesday is also the beginning of free, nightly entertainment.

On Thursday, the food court officially opens, and the Cornhole Tournament begins. All proceeds from this tournament are donated to the American Cancer Society and Relay For Life.


The opening ceremony of the races takes place Friday evening, which includes a parade and introduction of the participating teams. This also celebrates the Chinese heritage that inspired the event. Concordia Language Villages’ staff and students lead the parade with a dragon and drum crew. Then, the annual Sprint Cup race begins, hosted by Dondelinger GM. This is an optional race intended to stir excitement for Saturday’s races. This course is 200 meters, half the distance of the race on Saturday. Each team receives two attempts at the course. The fastest team to complete the course, wins the title of Sprint Cup Champion.

The main event is held on Saturday. The festivities begin with a 5K run/walk and a 1/2K kids’ run. This event typically raises approximately $5,000, all of which goes to support the local track and cross-country teams. Following the run, festivalgoers are encouraged to attend a breakfast hosted by the Bemidji Area Young Professionals Network. Then, off to the races!

Annually, more than 50 teams participate in the primary race. Each team is co-ed and may have 16-20 paddlers per boat, with at least eight female paddlers per team. In addition to the paddlers, a drummer is seated at the head of the boat to keep the rhythm of the row. There is also a person provided to navigate the boat through the lanes. Furthermore, any individual who is not on a team, but would like to participate, can volunteer to be “adopted” and join in the fun.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the race is that no prior experience is required. Anyone who is over the age of 13 on the race day is welcome to participate. The festival organizers provide all the equipment and will teach the teams how to paddle throughout the weekday practices. In the Saturday races alone, there are nearly 1,200 people that take part in the event.


The major course consists of four lanes, which start at Library Park and extend 400 meters to the destination at the amphitheater, near Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. The finish line is the gathering point for most guests, but there is a Team Village located at the starting point that festivalgoers are welcome to visit as well. The Village is a designated area for teams to socialize when they are not racing. Many teams get creative with their own 14’x14’ spaces and include games or photo opportunities to enhance the festivalgoer’s experience.

Heat one of the races begins at 9:30 am and continues until 12:30 pm. Each team races twice; once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Morning race times determine the Traveling Trophy winners. There are several different Traveling Trophy categories including: The Realtor’s Cup, The Education Cup, and The Casino Cup. Each trophy includes a plaque with the team’s name added to the cup and the winner earns the bragging right to their title until the next year. “This is a great way for organizations to get involved and have some friendly competition,” Bissonette added.

The second heat of the race times are combined with the first heat times to determine placement for the final race. Once the combined times have been calculated, the top four teams are placed in the championship, and the remaining teams are ranked and separated into three divisions. The top third of teams is represented in the gold division, the middle third in the silver division, and the lower third in the bronze division. The four teams with the fastest cumulative times in each division will then race a third time to determine the winner.

Once the races have concluded and prizes have been awarded, it is time for one last celebration. The final night of free entertainment runs a bit later in the evening as a “thank you” to all attendees, volunteers, and sponsors. “We have had great sponsors throughout the years, and have 200-300 volunteers throughout the week,” Brian added. “We’re able to provide the community with a week of fun, and they help a handful of great, local nonprofit organizations. It’s a win-win for everyone, and one way we like to show our appreciation is by providing the free, nightly entertainment.”


The Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival, now a summer tradition for many, attracts an estimated 15,000 attendees throughout the week. The festival is free to attend, and while most festivalgoers arrive by land, some opt to watch the races from their boats on the lake. Participants and spectators alike come from various regions, including Canada, North Dakota, and Iowa. Located conveniently close to downtown Bemidji, the festival has also proven to be a boon to local businesses. More than just a competition, the festival emphasizes community through its charity-focused nature. By integrating everyone’s favorite summertime activities with giving back, it has become a must-attend event for many. This year's festival is scheduled for August 2-5. G


// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here

From Issue 2, 2023

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