Dragons Invade Telford Lake

 Not Olympic Gold, but for these paddlers, it's close


Telford Lake, Leduc AB – The 16th Annual Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival has been relocated to this natural lake, as the levels of the North Saskatchewan River, its host for the past fifteen years, were high and unsafe. With more than 1,000 paddlers and 50 boats registered, this promised to be an event that dragon boating fans will not soon forget! The Association was created in 1995, and the first Festival was held in 1997. This year’s Festival is based on the theme of the Black Water Dragon, a rare occurrence and sign of hope, and powered by a new motto: “Lay It Down On The Lake!”. The goal of many teams is to qualify for Nationals, and ultimately for the 2014 Worlds in Italy. Due to the river situation in Edmonton, many practices for all local teams took place on Telford Lake in the past couple of months.
Wednesday August 15 – At 2pm on Telford Lake’s shore, a large contingent of women clad in pink T-shirts and pink lifejackets gathered, excitedly chatting about the event set to take place on the dock, where a brand new, pink dragon boat lay, floating on the shallow waters of the lake.  The Breast Friends are a group of breast cancer survivors of the Edmonton region who have chosen this sport to support their philosophy of “becoming or remaining active after a diagnosis (and related surgeries) of breast cancer”. 
Andrea Tetrault, president of the Breast Friends Society, shared that this boat was named “Zheng-Tu” meaning “Journey to Conquer”, as the Society’s goal is to not only beat their competitors in a race, but also to help conquer this disease. She introduced two ladies representing the corporate entities that made this dream into a reality:  Karen Wells is with The Robert Tegler Trust Fund that deemed this group’s nature and goals worthy of its generosity, when they purchased and donated the boat. Kathy Parkinson was there on behalf of Cowan Graphics, known for its community support, the designer that surprised the group with their donation of the awesome pink and blue wrap that adorned the entire body of the dragon boat.
Hands folded and bald heads bowed, burgundy gowns gently moving in the light breeze, a group of Edmonton Buddhist monks prayed on the dock, beside the pink boat, chanting and finally blessing this magnificent craft, as all the Breast Friends paddlers and many other guests looked on…Warren Becker, vice-president of the EDBFA (Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival Association) was among the hosts, and following this blessing, led the monks to the enclosure where they blessed the rest of the dragon boats. Carley Graham represented the City of Leduc and was a congenial host. She happily accepted an invitation to go on a quick ‘ride’ with Breast friends in their new dragon boat. Carley is a new fan of dragon boating, and she happily shared that she will participate in the races with the ATCO Team.
Friday August 17- The Challenge Cup will take place on this night, preceded by an awesome Opening Ceremony attended by a few hundred dragon boaters and guests. While a few dozen large white tents have created a Paddlers’ Village on the west side of the lakeshore property, the ceremonial Lion Dancers pay homage to the Chinese culture and perform to the rousing music of a band of young musicians; then Canada’s Taiko drumming duo of Twilla McLeod and Greg Shimizu, The Booming Tree, stole the show, with their awesome rhythm, colorful outfits and highly-fit stance (boomingtree.ca).  Blain Selinger, president of the EDBFA, delivers a dynamic speech to greet the crowd, and declared the festival underway. An enthusiastic crowd watched the first races, witnessing how team spirit and training can replace high levels of fitness, which is not a common trait of dragon boaters!  The sun set on a few dragon boats still on the lake and their paddlers, reluctant to leave the quiet waters of Telford Lake…
Saturday August 18 - It is now on record: close to 1,400 paddlers are registered with 50 teams in the 16th Annual Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival. Except that this year, it is happening in the City of  Leduc! The day starts with blue skies and a brilliant summer sun.  Shuttle buses are on their way laden with guests coming from Edmonton. A well-designed, compact Festival program is handed to all visitors, thick with race and sponsor-relevant information. 50-50 dynamic sellers roam the crowd and fun activities such as an introduction to Stand Up Paddling are available. SUP was conceived in Hawaii, and is the fastest-growing water sport in the world.
To the sound of a no-nonsense marshall, the teams proceed excitedly when they are called, lining up in the warm shade of the line-up shelter, ready to compete in the semi-competitive races.  The course is set, a precise and welcomed leftover from other races the Leduc Boat Club has hosted in the recent past.  The race announcer’s rich and booming voice is commanding attention, and spectators know exactly when the race will begin. The day will deliver hope to many teams, and light disappointment to others. “We’ll do better next year”, some share, and spirits are high. 
Teams are planned to race on three lanes of 500 meters across Telford Lake. The combined race times of the morning and afternoon races are collected for every team, deciding the order of the competitive divisional categories. Food vendors, festival merchandisers, sellers of paddling gear occupy the shores close to the Beverage Garden, where youth and little kids are allowed thanks to a special permit.  A local artisan is Michelle Manovich, a designer of ‘earthy’ and chic jewellery, also the manager of the Leduc Boat Club with her husband Rob Borelli.
Dragon Sight is a team composed of sight-challenged paddlers. This team was the ‘brainstorm’ of the famous OCC Team, Oil City Crew based in Edmonton. OCC came up with this concept some time ago, and finally this year saw the new team recruit the paddlers, provide training and set them up for their first race.  It is touching to learn that ELITE Sportswear, a leader in the sports gear industry in Alberta, having learned of this new venture and being the consummate community supporter it has been for several decades, offered gold medals for that team’s members, whether they classified in a top finish or not! POND SCUM is another well-established team with the oldest average age in the Festival (50) that has participated in three world championships, and was hoping to classify for their fourth: they succeeded, and that was reason for an enthusiastic celebration on the Sunday afternoon. It is fascinating to observe that team members -men and women of various fitness levels- treat each other equally, with respect and fondness. 
Saturday night saw the Paddlers’ Party unfold, with live entertainment by Gee Baby and other performers. Food was served, and every paddler got a ballot to win the rowing machine generously donated by FLAMAN Event Rentals. 
Sunday August 19 - Quoting the Festival Association president, Blain Selinger, “the mood changes today as the competitive spirit rises”. Three unusual animal mascots roam the shore, provided by Wildrose Critters: the weather is glorious. The competitive races adjourn at noon to observe and cheer the Breast Cancer Survivor Pink Race. This day hosts the Steerspersons’ Hat Contest: Deputy Mayor for the City of Leduc, Glen Finstad delivers greetings and with the help of Crystal Bole of Leduc’s Community Services, delivers the award to the Fighting Dragons Team.  Blain Selinger addresses the crowd that seems to encompass every single paddler that’s been racing all weekend: “Look around you, THIS is your paddling family!” and proceeds to introduce all the Festival and Race directors present. He commends the Dragon Sight team by saying that “they are breaking barriers that sighted people never knew were there”.
As the 2012 Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival closes on a tired but proud and elated crowd of paddlers, coaches, steerspersons, drummers, Association directors and fans, it is obvious that this event was a major success. As Mr. Finstad shared with the huge crowd: “We enjoyed you here in our city: it was your first time here, don’t let it be the last!” We’ll just have to wait and see how the River will behave next year… Paddles up, friends!
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