Sports

The Calgary Dragon Boat Race & Festival for everyone

When considering the landlocked prairie beauty of Calgary, the first thing that comes to mind is not usually “boat racing.” And yet, every August, the Calgary Dragon Boat Race & Festival makes waves on the banks of North Glenmore Park, bringing a unique sense of culture and community to the city. 

The festival’s event manager Charlene Delisle is often awed by the communal spirit she witnesses. “You just sit back, you watch all of this, and you think, this is what society is all about,” she reflects. “Being a part of something; being happy.” 

The “something” she refers to is a Chinese cultural tradition that goes back more than 2000 years. The festival is held to honour the memory of Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet and philosopher who lived through the Warring States period of the Zhou dynasty. In 278 BC, Yuan committed suicide to protest the corruption of a Chou emperor, and it is said that local fisherman raced their boats into the Mei Lo River, attempting to save the drowning philosopher’s life. For generations since, people in China have held boat races in Yuan’s name.  

The boats themselves are striking in appearance; 40 feet long, intricately painted, and adorned with an ornamental dragon head at the bow, and a tail at the end. But what’s most fascinating to see is the rowers themselves, 20 of them sitting in pairs paddling furiously as a single team member steers from the rear of the boat and another pounds a drum beside the dragon head. This spectacle is only enhanced by the diversity of the athletes. 

“Anyone can do this. It’s not something you have to go get an education or spend many hours in a gym to be a part of. This is something that is brought together because you want to be a part of something.” 

Charlene Delisle

In Calgary alone, there are more than a dozen teams that welcome athletes of all backgrounds, ages, gender identities and athletic abilities.  

Dragon boating also has roots in the original Olympic Games of Ancient Greece, so a team drawing inspiration from the mythical warriors of Sparta is only fitting. Mike Heartz, who has been the captain of the Calgary Spartan’s Dragon Boat club since 2018, is also passionate about the inclusivity of the sport. “Our mission, from day one, was to prove that you can both do well in [competitive] races and also be a social, friendly team,” he says. 

The Spartans are a mixed-competitive team with a rigorous practice schedule. “All of the competitive teams in Alberta typically practice two to three times per week,” says Headtz “The social teams typically practice once per week and prioritize having fun, which is also an important piece in this community.” This fun can be seen in some of the names of other Calgary teams, such as Rocksteady and the Waverunners. There is even a team of past and current Calgary Transit employees, bringing more Cowtown flair to the festival. 

The Calgary Dragon Boat Society is the organization that has hosted the festival since 2010. The diverse board of the society has the stated aim “to engage Calgarians in an annual community dragon boat festival that profiles local Chinese culture and promotes a shared cultural experience.” Sponsors range from international organizations such as Sinopec to local organizations such as Calgary Chinatown, and it is thanks to many of these sponsors that you can enjoy more than just boat racing at this year’s festival. 

As competitive and casual racers sail across the reservoir, attendees can browse the Calgary Dragon Marketplace, which features over 50 local businesses offering artisanal crafts. Assorted food trucks and a (family friendly!) beer garden sponsored by Marda Loop Brewing is sure to keep attendees full and satisfied as they cheer the racers on. A kids’ play area offers two bouncy castles and face painting. There is even a stage providing cultural entertainment throughout the entire event, with performances from the Calgary Tai Chi and Martial Arts College and Global Fest. 

Best of all, the entire event is free. What else could fit better with the spirit of inclusivity that pervades this event? In addition to free admission, free parking is offered at Mount Royal University, with free shuttle bussing to and from the event offered by the Deerfoot Inn & Casino. 

The excitement of the competition forms the heart of the festival, especially for local teams. “The Calgary Dragon Boat Festival is special to us because it’s our hometown race,” says Heartz. “It’s where we strive to prove ourselves and showcase our talent to all of our family, friends, and other teams.” 

But quieter moments will pervade as well. Eye-dotting ceremonies and traditional Chinese blessings punctuate the event, and on Saturday morning, the Sistership Dragon Boat Association — an organization dedicated to providing dragon boating opportunities to people diagnosed with breast cancer — will conduct a ceremony to honour the survivors and victims of breast cancer, laying roses across the water. 

The Calgary Dragon Boat Festival takes place on August 11, 12, and 13 in North Glenmore Park. It promises to not just be a piece of Calgary’s cultural mosaic; it also promises to be a whole lot of fun. As Charlene Delisle puts it, “What’s better than getting out, being a part of the festival season, and watching people race up and down the reservoir?”

For more information about the festival and to see a full calendar of events, head to calgarydragonboatsociety.com.