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New season of dragon boating launches in Kamloops

The Kamloops Interior Dragon boat club is seen paddling in front of Riverside Park in Kamloops.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/ Kamloops Interior Dragons

Paddles hit the water earlier this month to kick off a new season for dragon boat racers in Kamloops, and there are still unfilled seats on one of the boats.

Originating in southern China over 2000 years ago, the sport brings people of all ages and abilities together for fitness, fun and competition.

“It’s great for fitness and a beautiful way to see the river,” said paddler Heather Bepple. “We’ve seen beavers and herons, there is always something new to see, it’s a whole different view.”

Bepple paddles with the Kamloops Interior Dragons, a team of outdoor enthusiasts ages 55 plus. She has been enjoying the sport for 15 years and can’t get enough of it. She is encouraging others to come give it a go.

“We just started practises, we’re looking to add new members to our roster and this is the best time to join,” she said. “You don’t need experience. We start the season with intensive coaching and pair up newbies with mentors. You need a reasonable amount of fitness but we start slow and then ramp up.”

There are three dragon boat teams in Kamloops who practise on the South and North Thompson rivers, then later compete at festivals in the Shuswap, Okanagan, Kamloops and Lower Mainland.

Unlike competitors in the Okanagan and Shuswap, the dragon boat teams in Kamloops have a river current to contend with.

“We go upstream first in practises," Bepple said. "You only make that one mistake once, if you go too far downstream you have to slog all the way back. I think it gives us an advantage on a lake, we’re used to extra resistance."

The Kamloops Interior Dragons are a club of dragon boat racers ages 55 and up.
The Kamloops Interior Dragons are a club of dragon boat racers ages 55 and up.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/ Kamloops Interior Dragons

In a dragon boat there are 20 paddlers and a steersperson in the back who operates a steering oar, and a caller in the front during a race. The two paddlers in the front seats set the stroke pace and the coach will advise what intensity is needed, sometimes by beating a drum. The boats compete on courses of different lengths ranging between 200 and 2,000 metres long.

“We switch positions so everyone gets experience in all positions, but most paddlers have their favourite,” Bepple said. 

When asked if she’s ever fallen out of the boat, Bepple said not yet.

“If anything crazy happens it’s during a race when maybe the waves pick up or it gets stormy. We have safety protocols and do drills so we know what to do in case someone goes over, which is most likely going to be the guy at the back standing up steering.”

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Dragon boats originated in southern China and are traditionally made out of teak wood. Traditional boats have an Asian-style dragon head attached at the front of the boat and a dragon tail at the back with dragon scales painted along the sides, according to the International Dragon Boat Federation.

Boat lengths can vary from 8 metres to over 18 m with varying widths and depths. The boat is propelled by paddlers using single bladed paddles and steered with a long steering oar at the back.

Traditional boats have a Chinese drum and a drummer’s seat at the front that is used to maintain the speed of the strokes. Dragon boat festivals honour an ancient Chinese historical figure Qu Yuan who was falsely accused of treason by the government and banished from the country. He threw himself into the Mi Lo River and died.

“The Chinese people have never forgotten this desperate heroic act and when fishermen raced their boats to recover his body before it could be devoured by fish (beating drums and throwing rice dumplings into the river to distract them); they founded a tradition that continues to this day," said the International Dragon Boat Festival website.

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Every spring in China paddlers will race their boats to the sound of beating drums, to re-enact the rush to save Qu Yuan.

The first International Dragon Boat Festival started in Hong Kong in 1976. Over the years the festival has expanded along with the sport of dragon boat racing that now takes place in numerous countries around the world.

In Canada, the first races started in Vancouver at Expo 1986 when the government of Hong Kong provided six dragon boats for the competition.

The first dragon boat club in Kamloops started in 1994 and that has since expanded to three clubs, one is for 55 and older, one is for women and men of any age and one is paddled by a team of breast cancer survivors. 

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The Kamloops Interior Dragons are looking for roughly ten newcomers to join the fun this year. Bepple said there are many benefits to being apart of the team.

“It’s a great group of people, I’ve made a lot of good friends through it. It’s such a fun sport, it’s outside on the water, and it’s great exercise. There are so many opportunities, one of our members is going to paddle at an international festival in Spain with a team from Victoria.”

The team practises three times per week, launching out of the Pioneer Park Boat launch.

Go here for more details on the Kamloops Interior Dragons, and how to sign up.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Shannon Ainslie or call 250-819-6089 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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