By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Aug 24, 2008 at 5:09 AM

When you think of Lake Superior, ore boats, the Edmund Fitzgerald and other large ships come to mind.

But this Friday and Saturday, dragon boats cruised along the waters of Superior Bay, outside Barkers Island in Superior.

In fact, the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival is the largest festival of its kind in the country, with more than 100 international teams competing.

The festival is an annual fundraising event organized by the Superior Rotary Club, Duluth's Harbortown Rotary Club and the Superior Sunrise Centennial Rotary Club.

Crews row the dragon boats, which are decorated in traditional Chinese tradition. The competition is for real, but the main reasons for the event are fund raising and fun.

The Festival Charity Partner for the 2008 Festival was the St. Mary's / Duluth Clinic (SMDC) Breast Program. The 2007 Festival raised over $58,000 for this program.

Lamont Cranston and his Blues Band headlines a fine lineup of entertainment that went on when the dragons weren't cruising the waters.

The first Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival was held in 2002. It drew more than 70 teams from all over the Twin Ports of Superior and Duluth and the surrounding areas. Participants have increased every year.

The Dragon Boat Race itself originated in Ancient China and has a history as rich and full as any classic tragedy.

According to legend, in 40 BC, the ghost of Qu Yuan, a great Chinese patriot and poet, appeared before the local fishermen along the Miluo River. He explained to the men that his spirit was hungry because a river dragon had been eating the rice that was meant for him.

To ward off the dragon so that his spirit could rest, he asked that the rice be wrapped in silk and tied with the colors of the emperor -- in threads of red, blue, white, yellow, and black. The water dragon, it was said, dreaded these colors.

It apparently worked, because dragon boat races now are held in more than 60 countries all over the world. A dragon boat is a very long and narrow human-powered boat.

The boats and races originated in China in pre-Christian times. While competition has taken place annually for more than 20 centuries as part of folk ritual, it emerged in modern times as an international "sport" in Hong Kong in 1976. Like running, horse racing and marksmanship, the racing of dragon boats is among mankind's oldest organized competitions.

For competition events, dragon boats are generally rigged with decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails. At other times the decorative regalia is usually removed, although a drum often remains aboard for training purposes.

The drum is part of the tradition of chasing away dragons, and today is used as an instrument to establish rhythm to the rowing. In some areas of China, the boats are raced without dragon adornments.

Dragon boat races are traditionally held as part of the annual Duanwu Jie festival observance in China.

In Wisconsin, several communities have dragon boat races as part of other festivals, and some other than the Lake Superior event have built their festivals into large events. The Great Midwest Dragon Boat Festival was held in Racine in July. It's been picked the No. 1 event in Racine County.

If you still want to take in a dragon boat event this year, you might want to head for Oshkosh on Sept. 20, when the Oshkosh Community Dragon Boat Race 7 Festival will be held on the Fox River. Entertainment linked with the festival takes place at the Leach Amphitheater and Riverside Park.

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.