Standing on the shores of Flathead Lake early in the morning, when the sun has yet to burn off the mist and the roadways bordering the water body are silent and still, it’s easy to imagine the towering and abrupt wall of the Swan Mountains to the east as the home of dragons.
We read about these legendary creatures as the denizens of the mountaintops, the masters of the skies armed with flaming breath and a desire for gold.
But the stories were wrong.
While it’s technically true that dragons do hunger for gold, it’s not so much in the mineral sense used for buried treasure – instead, think of gold medals. And instead of prowess in the air, they are actually masters of the water, plying it to the thumping sound of their hearts and with the power of 20 humans.
On Sept. 10-11, the dragons return to Flathead Lake for their fifth summer, hungry and ready to compete and connect with their kindred spirits at the Montana Dragon Boat Festival, held off the shores of Lakeside.
Diane Medler, executive director at the Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau, said 47 teams are signed up and ready to hit the waves to race their Hong Kong-style, 42-feet boats all weekend.
“It’s about 10 or 11 (fewer teams) than we ended with last year, but it’s still a great number—it’ll fit really well in Volunteer Park,” Medler said. “We’re pleased. And we’ve got some new teams.”
In the four previous years of dragon boat competition on Flathead Lake, thousands of spectators have watched the races from the shoreline, while visiting various food, beverage, and crafts vendors and listening to live music.
This year’s fifth annual festival will include many of those same elements, Medler said, along with some new aspects as the event settles into Lakeside for the second year. Before last summer, the festival was held in Bigfork on the east side of the lake, but it changed to Lakeside on the western shoreline last year due to factors such as more parking availability and calmer waters.
The layout at Volunteer Park in Lakeside is a bit different than spectators and teams might remember from the Bigfork venue at the Flathead Lake Lodge, Medler said, but it proved itself to be family friendly, spectator friendly, and community friendly.
“We really liked that venue and received a lot of positive comments from the paddlers and the spectators. For spectators, it was easier access. For paddlers, they liked the fact that they could see the whole racecourse form the shore,” Medler said.
According to a survey of spectators and paddlers from last year’s event, the spectators enjoyed the access points to the lake because kids could swim while still watching the races.
“For paddlers, most of them liked the fact that the team tents were really close together—it creates a paddler-village feel,” Medler said.
Businesses in Lakeside, however, voiced disappointment at the number of people who visited their shops and restaurants, Medler said, because they expected a massive crush of people similar to the Fourth of July holiday.
Many locals hunkered down at home instead of going out to the event or their regular bar or restaurant for fear of crowds, Medler said.
“This isn’t that type of event,” she said. “That’s been alleviated. People have a better expectation.”
Lakeside restaurants were given first crack at vendor spots this year, Medler said, and Spinnaker Bar and Grill and Glacier Perks Coffee House will have booths. The food court will be located in the parking lot of Glacier Perks, Medler said, giving everyone a better sense of where to go.
There’s also a commemorative beer cup available this year for purchase in the festival’s popular beer garden, and Medler said that cup will earn its owner special discounts at a variety of local Lakeside bars.
The races begin on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 8:30 a.m. The Dragon Lair Kids Activity Area is free and opens at 10 a.m., followed by the Cancer Survivor Race and Ceremony at 11 a.m.
Exhibition races at the end of the day—3:45 p.m.—will round it out in Lakeside, but the Dragon Bash Paddler Party will just be getting started at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell at 6 p.m.
On Sunday, races begin at 9 a.m., with the championship rounds at 1 p.m. Awards are at 2 p.m.
For more information on the Montana Dragon Boat Festival, visit www.montanadragonboat.com.