Story by Ann Treacy & photos by Jack Rendulich
“Paddle as one!”
Slipping into their 40-foot boat, the 20 women, once mostly strangers, hold in their heads the mantra that has taught them to pull together - in a boat and in life.
“Paddle as one!”
They’ve heard it over and over during practices as they prepared in 2006 for their second year competing in the annual dragon boat races in Superior, Wisconsin.
“Paddle as one!”
All totaled, they are a group of 65 women, 10 of whom have survived cancer. Together they have paddled dragons and have slain them.
Last year the Birkie Girls of Hayward, Wisconsin, formed one of 78 teams competing at the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival, organized by the Superior Rotary Club and Duluth’s Harbortown Rotary Club and presented by JAMAR. The teams hailed from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario and paddled in the spectacular warmth of high summer to raise money for breast cancer research.
Now this team of 50-, 60- and 70-something-year-old Birkie Girls is again practicing to “Paddle as one!” in the event this August.
For first-time attendees at any dragon boat festival - and there are now four around Lake Superior - these family events can generate an atmosphere of carnival excitement, a stimulating mix of delicious smells, lively sounds and music and brilliant colors.
Last year at Barker’s Island, festival attendees enjoyed mini donuts, corn dogs, barbecue and other snacks. Folks interested in the beer garden, and those who like lemonade, were entertained by drum groups and singers. Spectators took hay rides from place to place or strolled between food vendors, team resting tents and the large craft fair.
Friday night’s ceremonies at Barker’s Island opened with a cannon blast. Then a bagpiper, himself a paddler, led the parade of athletes Friday and closed the races Saturday evening. Drums beat rhythmically on the water all day during Saturday’s races.
For those paddling in a dragon boat race, the hardest part isn’t sitting two abreast on 10 hard wooden-plank seats. It’s not training your eyes exclusively on the two pacers in front. It’s not even physically propelling a heavy 40-foot fiberglass-and-wood boat.
The hardest part is perfectly synchronizing 20 paddlers to heave 22 people forward in a boat that, loaded, weighs more than 2 tons.
According to Barbara Williamson, drummer for Birkie Girls, “There is no other sport where you’re trying to get 20 people to do the same thing at the same time in the same way. It does not look as hard as it is.”
Yet a team that nails it just right will paddle with the graceful coordination and military precision of Riverdance.
Dragon boat racing began in China 2,500 years ago and remains part of annual Chinese water rituals. These celebrations honor the Asian water dragon deity. The ancient Chinese tradition of bright colors was reflected everywhere at Barker’s Island - from team costumes to the boats themselves, which customarily emphasize blue, red, white, black and yellow. It also commemorates the drowning death of Chinese poet Qu Yuan, who was minister of state during the Chou Dynasty (1050 to 256 B.C.) but was stripped of his office after protesting corruption in the government. He was much beloved, but drowned in a river, dejected and unhappy, after his firing. Fishermen raced out in their boats to find him and that scene is re-enacted in the form of dragon boat races.
Dragon boats are paddled, not rowed, which means that boat occupants face forward. There are 10 paddlers on the left, 10 on the right, a drummer in the bow facing them and either rhythmically beating a drum or calling race commands, and, finally, a steersperson standing or kneeling in the stern maneuvering the boat with a long steering oar. Four boats race per heat, so steering is vital. Collisions are rare, and a boat that veers out of its lane is docked time. The race course is a straight shot, making it unnecessary to turn around at race speed, which is fortunate. The boats are about as maneuverable as a half-ton truck with no power-steering fluid.
In 2006 the race at Barker’s Island was 450 meters, about the distance of a short par 5 golf hole. Paddling is both challenging and fun; racing against the clock makes those meters feel like miles.
The Birkie Girls, who occasionally call themselves “the old broads,” were founded by Trish Truver in the fall of 2001, shortly after the September 11 attacks.
New to Hayward and craving company, Trish pinned up fliers in coffee shops hoping to meet other women interested in being physically active. She met the first members with fliers still in hand. Every Tuesday, all year, 25 to 30 Birkie Girls (of the 65 on the current e-mail roster) meet to exercise from 10 a.m. until noon. They tackle a different activity weekly, everything from kayaking to cross-country skiing to mountain biking. Three years ago, they hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. By tradition, they also have lunch each Tuesday at Moose Lips Restaurant in Seeley.
At first, they met to hike on the Birkebeiner Ski Trail, hence their name. Although some of these women do ski the Birkebeiner race, they have introduced each other to new sports, like dragon boating, and have completed half of the Superior Hiking Trail, although Truver adds, “We do not camp.”
One member, now an avid snowshoer, had never even hiked in woods before retiring from her career and joining the group.