The second annual Alberta Dragon Boat Race Festival at North Glenmore Park in Calgary attracted over 60 teams from across Canada and the U.S. this year.
Dragon boat racing began in China more than 2000 years ago as part of celebrations to ensure prosperity and bountiful crops. Today, the races are held for competition and amusement.
"Our Festival has experienced tremendous growth over a short period of time," notes Albert Wong, Chairman of the Alberta Dragon Boat Race Festival Foundation.
"Dragon Boat Racing is the fastest growing team sport in North America."
During the two day event, August 1-2, approximately 1,200 competitors took part in the races.
Alvin Wang, promotions coordinator for the event, thinks the number of teams involved will double by next year."
"We're growing at a rapid rate," says the 29 year old Calgary computer programmer.
"The organization of this year's event took three months to prepare, but an event this size should normally take a lot longer."
The races are associated with the tragic tale of the patriotic poet, Ch'u Yuan, who threw himself into the Mi Lo River in Hunan Province after his advice to the king was rejected and upon hearing that his state was destroyed by enemies.
Legend says that many people raced in boats to scare the fish and water dragons away from Ch'u Yuan's body. They also wrapped rice in leaves and threw them into the river as a sacrifice, or, in other versions of the legend, to prevent the fish from eating his body. Rice dumplings are still eaten today as part of the dragon boat festival celebration.
Like many of the participants born in Canada, Wang, a graduate of the University of Regina and long-time resident of Calgary, explains his initial attraction to the growing team sport.
"Calgary had been trying to have it (dragon boat races) for a number of years," recalls Wang.
"Originally, I was really interested in having a competitive Chinese team. We should have a decent team, I thought."
"With funding from Festival Hong Kong in Calgary, last year, we were able to borrow the boats. This year, the Foundation was able to purchase its own boats which are currently being financed." Each boat costs $15,000..
An active leader in the community, Wang is Vice President of the United Calgary Chinese Association and a Director of the Sien Lok Society. He is also a former Director of the Calgary Chinese Services Association.
With help from the Calgary Canoe Club and a number of other organizations, last year's event saw 29 teams compete with six boats.
There are 22 people on one boat, each team consisting of 20 paddlers, a steersperson, and a drummer. Under rules adopted by the Calgary event, however, the teams can have as few as sixteen. The races cover approximately 650 metres in the Glenmore Reservoir.
The length of the boats can range between 30 and 100 feet (11.73 metres) but are barely wide enough to fit two people side by side. They weigh 771 kilograms each.
As one of the fastest growing North American team sports, over 90 teams now compete in the Vancouver races annually. Last year, 100,000 people attended that city's three-day event.
There are now four organizations involved in dragon boat races in Canada; the others are in Toronto, London, and Regina.
Last year, Wang's own team, Draggin' Dragons, made up mainly of young Chinese professionals, won the Chinese Heritage category, only to reemerge as the Revenge of the Draggin' Dragons this time around.
Wang reflects: "I think it really shows the mainstream community an aspect of Chinese culture. Everyone can be involved, but you don't have to be Chinese to enjoy it."
"The Chinese community has been very supportive, and they're really into it. They enjoy the races."
About 45,000 in Calgary turned out for this year's event, including a large portion of the Chinese community.
The Foundation's plans for this year and next are to pay for the cost of the boats and, eventually, where there is a surplus, to sponsor charitable work in accordance with their by-laws.
"We would like to see some support from Edmonton some day," adds Wang. "It would be really good if Edmonton had an organization."
"It really brings people together." We had teams from British Columbia and the United States.
Wang's own team plans to visit Regina in September and expects the teams from Regina to go to Toronto next year.
In dragon boat racing, three minutes or less is a competitive score. The fastest time recorded in the Calgary Festival was 2:53. Team MacKenzie Industrial Group of Funds from Vancouver took first place overall.