Enter the Dragon Boats

by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & lready popular in some larger cities built around waterways -- such as Seattle, Portland, and many cities in Canada -- the dragon boats are rising in Spokane. So far, 26 teams have registered for Saturday's "Paddle for Parks" event in which long, colorful boats with dragon heads and tails are paddled in short but intense 250-meter races on the Spokane River, ending at the Division Street Bridge.

"The fact that you have 26 teams shows you what the interest is here," says Carol Habib of the Washington Dragon Boat Association. "You have the water for it -- it's a spectacular city." Habib and a group of others from the WDBA are "on vacation" here from Tacoma to train Spokane's fledgling teams for the event. Spokane's rowers, it turns out, are a diverse and enthusiastic bunch.

"My own excitement has built over the last few days, just being around these guys," says Rick Steltenpohl, executive director of Hoopfest, who was brought on board to help drum up awareness of the event. He's never done dragon boats before but feels confident that the community can "make it something big -- a Riverfest."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & ragon boat racing goes back thousands of years in China. Twenty people seated in pairs paddle the boats, a drummer at the bow galvanizes the all-important rhythm factor, and a steersman navigates the craft from astern. "One person can't win this," Habib says. "Two people can't win it -- it's an entire boat with all 20 people paddling together, and they all have to be unison." The sound of the drums can become chaotic in a race, she adds, so the team has to be focused on the front strokers. The WDBA's Kelly Wheeler -- an English teacher when she's not racing dragon boats -- speaks with respect of a Portland team called "Blind Ambition," whose members are all blind or sight impaired. "They paddle better than us, because they feel the rhythm of it," she says.

Underscoring the point that technique prevails over brute strength, Portland's Wasabi Power Surge is the nation's leading team for female racers 40 and older. The oldest paddler is 76 years old, and a writer for the Seattle Times reported "that our boat felt like it was beginning to lift off the river." Dragon boat racing is also a popular bonding activity for breast cancer survivors too. "Anyone can do this," Habib says.

The boats are more than 40 feet long, weigh about 500 pounds, and are worth from $7,000 to $12,000 each. If dragon boat racing takes off in Spokane as it has elsewhere, the issue of long-term mooring has to be addressed, because the length and weight of the boats makes transportation difficult and expensive. The eight boats for this year's event were rented from a manufacturer in Vancouver, British Columbia, and arrived on a special trailer.

Saturday's races will each last about 90 seconds. Last year, the victorious Itron team nudged ahead of the Essie Casey Dragon Flies by a scant 1/20 of a second. Races begin at 8 am with a "dotting the eyes" ceremony, an old Chinese tradition in which the dragons are said to be awakened for the races. The teams will race in groups of three or four boats, and those with the lowest times will race against each other for the grand prize medals at the end -- sometime around 3 pm. The entry fee is $700; proceeds benefit the Spokane Parks Foundation. Wheelabrator of Spokane is the event sponsor.

Spectators can park free at the Riverpoint Campus for the day, and are invited to watch from the north bank of the Spokane River below the Red Lion River Inn, or from the footpath near the Division Street Bridge.

"Paddle for Parks" with dragon boats * Saturday, July 21, from 8 am-3 pm * Free for spectators * Spokane River at the Division Street Bridge * Visit: www.spokaneparksfoundation.org * Call: 625-6774

Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 11
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