By Jennifer Derrick

Paddling for a Purpose

The Annual Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival in Superior Draws Thousands of Competitors, Volunteers and Spectators to Raise Money for Very Good Causes

2012 marks the 11th year of the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival, and behind the scenes, multitudes of volunteers are working to make sure the event continues to be an entertaining, free tradition that also raises money for a host of good causes in our region.

During the festival, there’s a mix of “those there for the competition, those there to have a good time and those people there as part of a company event,” said Alan Rock, Superior Rotary Club 40 member and associate director of the Catholic Charities Bureau, Inc. You can listen to good music, view the races all day Saturday and overall, be part of an atmosphere that feels inviting and festive.

And if you’ve ever participated or watched the races, you’ll know that the boats and races are simply stunning. It’s awe-inspiring to hear the drums and to see teams paddling in sync, slicing through the still, blue water.

About 80 to 100 registered paddling teams (each comprising 20 paddlers, one steersperson, one drummer, one manager and two alternates) show up each year to race. And thousands flock to Superior to watch them—attendance is projected at 8,000 to 10,000 people for this year.

History of the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival

Why Dragon Boat racing?

The tradition of dragon boat racing originally comes from China, where it is the national sport, and the Canadians have quite a history of dragon boating too. Our neighbors up north in Thunder Bay, Ontario, were the ones who inspired Rotarians to start such an event here.

Members of Duluth Harbortown Rotary Club had been going to Thunder Bay to watch some of their dragon boat races and wanted to start a similar event in our area, notes Joe Radke, Superior Rotary Club 40 member, who is vice president of Sailboats Inc. and manager of Barker’s Island Marina.

It’s awe-inspiring to hear the drums and to see teams paddling in sync, slicing through the still, blue water.

Duluth didn’t have anywhere with the needed conditions, but Barker’s Island did, so Harbortown Rotary approached Superior Rotary Club 40 about the possibility of collaborating on the event.

The two clubs quickly “forged a partnership,” Radtke said, and then planned for the first festival for about a year and a half.

Tuula Harris, also a Superior Club 40 member, was one of the co-chairs for the first Dragon Boat Festival. Looking back, she says, “I think I was pretty naive about what it would take to put something like this together.”

But they did – and it was very successful. Hoping to get about 35 registered teams that first year, everyone was surprised when 72 teams signed up. And the festival actually turned a profit, too, adds Radtke, when they weren’t even “expecting to break even.”

It helped a lot, says Harris, to know they were in this together; the other co-chair, Mike Cochran of Harbortown Rotary, was key to the planning efforts. And the folks heading up the Thunder Bay Dragon Boat Race Festival, she says, have been a source of “support and encouragement” from the get-go.

Hoping to get about 35 registered teams that first year, everyone was surprised when 72 teams signed up.

What was most amazing, Harris says, was the assistance from community organizations. Jeff Foster Trucking brought over a flatbed when they were trying to find a stage for musicians. Jamar Co. brought fencing and put it up. Campbell Lumber pitched in with lumber for the deck, the UW-Superior brought over tables and chairs. And the list goes on with contributions from many community-minded businesses.

Rotarians, adds Patricia Finney, “have great connections with local area businesses and the City of Superior, who all step up and generously donate many in-kind services that are critical to the success of the festival.” Finney is the incoming president of Harbortown Rotary and manager of client services at Hallmark Business Connections.

It was clear from the beginning, Harris said, that people believed in this event.


Another aspect of the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival’s success is the timing. “Superior needed a late summer festival,” explained Lake Nebagamon Police Chief Ed Anderson, this year’s festival co-chair and a Superior Club 40 member. “We really put a lot of thought into the timing of the festival. The event is held the last weekend in August, which is often a weekend people have open because it’s so close to school opening dates and right before Labor Day weekend.”

Even though Barker’s Island wasn’t really ready for an event like this, noted Harris, everyone worked hard to make it happen.

And that “everyone” includes the City of Superior. From the start, said Parks and Recreation Administrator Mary Morgan, the City made it clear – via the city council going on record – that it supports the festival. Every year the city offers many services at no charge for the event (i.e barricades, “no parking” signs, traffic controllers and public patrol) to continue showing its support. Essentia Health is a major contributor to the event too, providing financial sponsorship.

In 2005 and 2006 the city made enhancements to Barker’s Island – about $1.4 million worth, said Morgan. Obtained primarily in grants, the money was used for more parking spots, the pavilion, a guest dock, pathways, benches, picnic tables and more.

It was clear from the beginning … that people believed in this event.

Morgan noted that when the process of making improvements began, the City sat down with festival organizers to see what was needed. While plans for parking and lighting were in the works, Superior Club 40, Harbortown Rotary and Superior Water Light & Power stepped up and elected to contribute $6,000 each to install temporary electric panels – something that was really needed for the festival. The benefit of all these upgrades, added Morgan, is that they “now serve others as well.”

What Makes the Festival Unique?

This Dragon Boat Festival, aside from providing a free event to the public, is all about raising money for its charitable partner – Essentia Health Foundation – and for garnering funds that Superior Club 40, Harbortown Rotary and Superior Sunrise Centennial Rotary can give back to local altruistic organizations.

Do people have fun? Yes. Is there some serious competition? Definitely. But all of that takes place within the context of raising money for an issue that “resonates with a lot of people,” said Anderson. The aforementioned principles (fun/free event/raising money) are the “three legs” that continue to make the festival successful, added Rock.

Another component that makes this huge festival so distinctive is that it is solely planned and run by volunteers.

Another component that makes this huge festival so distinctive is that it is solely planned and run by volunteers. And it needs a lot of volunteers. Harris said that several thousand volunteer hours are logged each year to put on the event, which also includes music, fireworks, beer and food tents, children’s activities and more.

“Organizing an event of this scale,” said Finney, “is a year-round endeavor.” The executive committee, with members from Superior Club 40, Harbortown Rotary and Superior Centennial Sunrise Rotary, meet at least monthly to assess how planning is going. There are also many committee chairs that meet almost year-round to ensure the festival is coordinated and planned as needed. And as the event draws near, even more committees meet frequently. All told, 20-plus committees are involved in planning.

The money that the Rotary Clubs raise comes from registration fees and onsite sales.

Something that keeps this festival “fresh,” Radtke said, “is that each year there are new co-chairs – one from Superior Club 40 and one from Harbortown.” By design, Rotary leadership changes every year and Radtke said all three clubs “followed the same model” when structuring their efforts for the Dragon Boat Festival. That helps avert the burnout factor that sometimes happens when the same people are in the same leading positions year after year.

Last year, City Councilor Warren Bender was one of the co-chairs. His description of what that entails is quite extensive. Overall, it involves many meetings, a lot of work and much time. Nonetheless, one of his favorite parts about planning and running the festival, he said, “is knowing that hundreds of Rotarians from Superior and Duluth are there working to make it a success, and that each one of them has your back.”

Fundraising Through Fun

In the midst of all this planning, Charity Rupp, director of annual giving/special events for the Essentia Health Foundation, does her share of work to helping fundraising teams.

Rupp characterized Essentia Health Foundation as “fortunate enough to be selected as the charitable partner” for eight of the festival’s 11 years. She explained how money the paddlers raise is funneled into an array of cancer-related programs, services and equipment  – and most recently, breast-cancer related initiatives.

Rupp, who works closely with registered teams, encourages paddlers to find creative ways to fundraise both individually and with their teams. That could be events such as pie throwing contests, polar bear plunges, wine tasting events, etc. In this way, the competition starts long before paddlers hit the water. Many of them – whether their team is related to family, employer or to an organization – develop a fun, gung-ho spirit about raising money.

Two years ago, said Rupp, paddlers raised $90,000. Last year, it was $65,000. On average, she noted, it’s between $60,000 and $75,000.

Keyport Liquor owner Mark Casper is in charge of coordinating beer tents for the festival. But his work on the festival’s behalf doesn’t stop there. He also paddles and fund-raises with his employee team. For the last three years, Keyport employees have been the top fund-raising team, an honor Casper is very proud of and something he attributes to his workers’ “creativity in finding ways to raise money.”

Over the years (and they’ve been involved since the second year), Keyport employees have held events including outdoor concerts, rummage sales, wine dinners, raffles and more. Last winter, with the help of Twin Ports Outdoor Movies, they set up a big screen for the Packers/Giants game and held a tailgate fundraiser party.

No matter whom you talk to, they radiate a feeling of excitement and purpose.

The other fund-raising piece happens during the weekend of the event. The money that the Rotary Clubs raise comes from registration fees and onsite sales. For example, this year’s cost for team registration is $800, or $32 per person. If 80 teams register, that’s a significant amount of money that the clubs can then donate to other local organizations.

And the list of organizations receiving donations is long. For Superior Rotary Club 40, it’s nearly two pages, including such recipients as the Boys and Girls Club, Hartley Nature Center, Great Lakes Elementary School, Superior Parks and Recreation and Superior Public Library.

The Boat Club

While the Rotary Club members are key players in planning and running the festival, the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival wouldn’t be what it is without the Duluth Boat Club’s amazing contributions. Both Craig Lincoln and Megan Kress are integrally involved with the festival and the Boat Club also provides the steersperson for each registered team.

Lincoln, an environmental Programs Coordinator for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, admits that when the Boat Club was approached about helping out with the event, he had never heard of a Dragon Boat race and thought it sounded “silly.” Laughing, he recalled how during the first event at Barker’s Island, when he was one of the paddlers, he realized how very amazing the races are. He was hooked – and still is, acting as main officiator at the event.

Overall, Lincoln said, the Duluth Boat Club contributes 45 volunteers, helps train teams, oversees race rules, registration and more, and overall, offers about 1,000 hours on the water each year for the festival. The practice sessions alone take up to 200 hours, Kress noted, as each registered team is guaranteed two one-hour training sessions.

Kress, who is involved in dragon boating around the United States and Canada in a variety of capacities (paddler, coordinator, coach – she’s certified), is head trainer for the festival. She trains other paddlers, who can then instruct participating teams. She also pitches in by training some teams herself.

“I was part of a dragon boat team nine to 10 years ago and got the bug,” said Kress. Both she and Lincoln pointed out the unique aspect of dragon boating. There are “no superstars” on a dragon boat team, Kress said, and “You really don’t know who’s responsible for winning,” Lincoln added.

To accommodate practices for the races, the Harbortown and Superior Club 40 Rotaries each purchased one dragon boat. When it’s time for the festival, the organizers rent six more boats from Lakehead Canoe Club in Thunder Bay.

And then, on race day, four boats compete at a time every 10 minutes. This goes on from about 8 a.m. to 5:30 or 6 p.m.

Anderson said his favorite thing is simply seeing the cancer survivors team walk in.

Kress says the work she does for the festival is definitely tiring, but she keeps coming back for more. “I enjoy the process of helping people succeed,” she said, noting that succeed is a word with “multiple definitions.”

Her duty in this festival, she added, is to the Rotary Clubs. Personally, however, she just wants more people out on the water, enjoying the thrill of dragon boat racing. “I want the sport to grow,” said Kress.

What Makes it Worth it, Year after Year

Everyone has personal reasons for volunteering at the festival. But no matter whom you talk to, they radiate a feeling of excitement and purpose.

Service above self is the Rotary’s model, Anderson pointed out. “We all have a bit of that in us,” he said. And service is what keeps this festival afloat. People keep turning out to help because they see purpose in the cause, they see value in what they can offer – and they know how fun it can be.

Anderson said his favorite thing is simply seeing the cancer survivors team walk in. His eyes get watery just mentioning this. Bender loves the “opening ceremony when the teams march in” and the closing ceremony, when awards are given.

For Lincoln, it’s the race day excitement that continues to draw him. And for Casper and so many others, it’s just a joy to be back out on the water – paddling for a purpose.  P.S.

Jennifer Derrick is a freelance writer.

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