Guest column: Dragon boat races bring laughs, boost nonprofits

Tallie Gray
Guest columnist
Team Fire Fighters "put out" the competition during the dragonboat races in Grand Lake last weekend.
Tallie Gray / Courtesy Photo

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: my favorite Grand County event is the Dragon Boat Fundraising Race in Grand Lake.

The setting is majestic. Early in the morning, we arrive with the spirits of Grand Lake clinging to the waters and readying for the skies, gently veiling Mount Baldy and the surroundings. The misty morning sets the stage for Tim Hodsdon, the father of this event, and the cast of many who are busily setting up tents, coffee donated from Blue Water Bakery and the actual professional dragon boat team. The Phantom Dragons, who have driven up from Denver with our mighty vessels for the fierce but fun competition are in charge of the races. Thank goodness. Let the fun begin!

I do my best to jump into the mix of setting up. Everyone has their assigned role and they have taken command of their mission. I start taking photos. The nonprofit teams for whom this is event is planned, start arriving. Costumes are adorned. The nonprofits gather a team of 10 or so, send out pledge pages asking for donations for their worthy cause and get to collaborate with each other in how to best vanquish the other organizations.

Author Tallie Gray’s dragon boat team, The Grand County Dems.
Tallie Gray / Courtesy Photo

On July 16, there were teams plus the certified coaching staff of the Phantom Dragons, who shared their expertise with us. Safety is a serious issue, so on top of the five-minute informational speech, one expert dragon boat member joined each team to guide us in safe but vigorous paddling.

My desperate plan to outpace the intimidating Fire Fighting team in their actual yellow, firefighting uniforms with bright red hard hats, is to get a Phantom Dragon member to be our drummer. I’m in my 50s and 5-foot-2-inches in Hoka sneakers, so this is no time to risk a novice drummer to keep us in unison and at a fast and steady pace. Those firefighters look just the way our community wants them to look, ready for a tough battle.

The Fraser Valley Hockey Association Team is raising money to keep their fees down to a minimum and wear matching jerseys. I believe I hear a robust chant of “Go Eagles,” but my costume covers my ears and drowns out a lot of the noise while I am nervously thinking I should find someone younger and with brawn to fill my spot.

But I’m up for this challenge, so chants, uniforms, Viking helmets of the Rocky Mountain Wooden Boat School team, which is hosting this particular event, and the high fashion make-up and costumes by theater professions of Shadowcliff Mountain Lodge Team will not psych me out.

Tallie Gray (left) and Rocky Mountain Wooden Boat School board members Tim Hodsdon (right) and Alice Sampson show off the prized decorated paddle for the fastest dragon boat team in the dragon boat races last weekend in Grand Lake.
Tallie Gray / Courtesy Photo

Yet the sparkly tutus, outfits and make-up of the Little Sprouts Team, surrounded by some of their adorable pre-school clients, are definitely distracting. Who wants to beat a team that helps and educates our youth? But as a member of the Grand County Dems, who raised $750 for the Upper Colorado Watershed Group, with the mission to promote awareness, conservation and appreciation of the lands and streams with events like today — well, I take a deep breath and wish everyone else good luck. I will not throw in the towel, nor will my donkey clad teammates!

There are three races per team, and two teams race at a time. Besides the drummer and the caller, we are paired up, five pairs deep. Hips MUST stay to the side of boat or you risk hearing and feeling splash!

Our first race is flawless! We paddle in unison, wanting desperately to jump with joy as we glide past the finish buoy, winning our heat by a dragon’s nose. But we stay seated and dry until we reach the dock.

Watching the Fire Fighters versus the Hockey Team is awesome. Wow. Fast. Powerful. The teams to beat. No question.

The Shadowcliff Mountain Lodge team won first place in the costume contest.
Tallie Gray / Courtesy Photo

Time for the second race. Gulp. We are paddling against the Fire Fighters. For much of the race, my sideways glance seems to catch that we are ahead or at least tied. Could this be? We are pulling strong. Chanting in time with our drummer, who tells me “look straight ahead!”

The finish-line buoy is just within reach of us. Until … a boat gets in our way. The steering caller agilely pushes the rudder-like paddle. Yet we sway. Then we sway a bit more aggressively the other way. Then we overcorrect. My face is inches above the water. And just like that, I am a soaking wet blue donkey. Yup. All 12 of us are okay, laughing while trying to figure out exactly what caused us to capsize. We swim the mighty dragon boat to the shore and start bailing out what must be half of Grand Lake.

Although we are tired, wet and a bit timid, the third heat goes much smoother. No one gets wet. We all agree this is a fantastic team-building event.

As anticipated, the Fire Fighting team takes first prize, winning a decorated paddle to hang in their station. The Disney-clad Shadowcliff team wins the trophy for best costumes. But really, everyone is a winner. We raised a combined total of over $10,000 for our charities. And we had a great time. This was a win-win kind of day, making every participant and spectator proud to be a Grand County community resident.

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