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Bringing the excitement of an ancient sport to fresh waters

The idea for the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival was born in 2002 when, while collaborating to brainstorm new fundraising efforts, the Superior and Duluth Harbortown Rotary Clubs came up with the idea of hosting a dragon boat race. The 2002 inaugural festival far exceeded both Clubs’ expectations, drawing more than 70 area teams and raising $36,000. This initial festival gave Rotarians the motivation to continue hosting this free, fun, family event for the community, and in the past 13 years, the festival has grown in terms of both teams and spectators. Superior Sunrise Rotary joined the Festival as an associate partner in 2008, and since its inception, the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival has raised almost one million dollars for organizations in the Duluth-Superior area.

Dragon boat history

Though the first Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival was celebrated just nine years ago, the history of dragon boat racing itself can be traced to legends that date back more than 2,000 years.

One such legend is based on ancient Chinese mythology, which identifies the dragon as the symbol for water. Believed to reign the rivers and seas and dictate the clouds and rains, the dragon and its clout incited superstitious Chinese villagers to conduct races in boats shaped like the formidable serpent. Conducted each year on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, these boat races were believed to not only assuage the rain gods, but also to forestall misfortune and encourage the rains needed for prosperity.

Another dragon boat racing legend begins with Qu Yuan, a trusted advisor in the Chinese state of Chu, who the king banished to a remote area in Southern China. Qu Yuan spent the remainder of his life in a state of depression, wandering aimlessly about the countryside while writing poetry in profession of his love for his country and its people. Upon learning of his kingdom’s defeat, Qu Yuan gripped a large rock and threw himself into the torrents of the Miluo River. News of Qu Yuan's suicide spread quickly, and hundreds of local fishermen and villagers raced out in their boats in an attempt to save him, beating on drums and splashing their oars in the water in an effort to prevent the water dragons from eating his body.

These ancient legends have formed the modern sport of dragon boat racing, commemorating the tragic death and sacrifice of Chinese patriot and poet Qu Yuan, as well as paying tribute to the Chinese water dragon deity. Moreover, it has developed into a worldwide, fun-filled, family-focused team building activity. Since the first dragon boat festival in Hong Kong in 1976, the sport has grown into an event that now draws participants in over 60 countries, including more than 90,000 people in the United States and Canada.

The Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival is proud to be part of this ancient tradition and bring the custom to the fresh waters of Lake Superior!