More than 20 teams of dragon-boat racers will go head-to-head in Bigfork Bay this weekend at the 2019 Montana Dragon Boat Festival.
In dragon boating, narrow vessels approximately 40 feet long are propelled through the water by teams of up to 20 paddlers, along with a drummer and steersman. The sport originated in China over 3,000 years ago and is one of the fastest-growing international team water sports in the world.
While this year marks the seventh year of the festival, it will be the first time the races take place in Bigfork Bay, just outside the Marina Cay Resort. The Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau launched the event in 2012 as a way to increase tourism during the shoulder season and highlight Flathead Lake. In those first years, the festival was held at Bigfork’s Flathead Lake Lodge before relocating to Volunteer Park in Lakeside in 2016.
The dragon boat festival was successful in bringing more visitors to the area, said Convention and Visitor Bureau Director Diane Medler, but has also become less of a priority for the organization in recent years.
“We did not want the event to end — it’s something that the local community has grown to love and be involved in … We wanted it to stay on Flathead Lake,” Medler said. “We’re very excited that Bigfork decided to take it on and I’m sure they’ll put on a great event this year.”
The Bigfork Bay location also offers greater protection from afternoon wind and waves, which forced organizers to halt races early last year on both Saturday and Sunday. Races will be limited to the 200-meter distance both days, eschewing the longer 500-meter format that formerly took place on Sunday. New this year is an optional 1,500-meter “Guts and Glory Race,” along with exhibition matches on Sunday that include a backward race and barrel race.
The Bigfork Chamber of Commerce is the new organizer of the event, and Chamber Executive Director Rebekah King said she’s excited to bring the event back to Bigfork and noted that as of Sept. 4, 21 teams had registered for the event.
“It’s a smaller venue in a smaller bay and with it being our first year, we are thrilled,” King said. “This event has had a proven $1 million economic impact in the Flathead Valley each year. To have that centered in Bigfork outside of the summer season, we’re hoping that all of our businesses will see a huge boost from it.”
Spectators can catch all the paddling action from the lawn of the Marina Cay Resort, where drinks and food will be available for purchase from the Tiki Bar. Attendees are asked to leave their four-legged friends at home for this event. Five additional food and beverage vendors will also be on site, King said. Shuttle buses will transport visitors form the school parking lot to the event and to downtown Bigfork where races will be broadcast live on a large screen at the end of Electric Avenue.
“The Bigfork area chamber is really excited to be hosting this event in the bay,” King said, “and we’re really looking forward to more teams getting into it.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.