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Smoke on the water: Dragon boats in action.

Trial by Fire

Denver is a festival town: Our hot, dry, sunny summers and balmy autumns are not just a boon to the sunscreen industry -- they also provide the perfect backdrop for mass fun in the great outdoors. We eat and dance and view art under blue skies each year, and now, Buddha willing, we're going to have a Dragon Boat Festival, too.

The region's pan-Asian communities are banding together to bring dragon-boat racing, an international sport new to the area, to Sloan Lake this Sunday. "This is such a spectacular festival," says Boulder kung-fu guru Howie Solow, a member of the fest's steering committee. "It's different from all the others because there's a competition involved -- nobody else has a competition experience of this magnitude. These boats are forty feet long -- they're big, and they're really cool looking."

A 2,000-year-old Chinese tradition, the races occur both as an offering to the Dragon, a composite creature who controls the rains, and as a tribute to poet/warrior Qu Yuan, unjustly banished over two millennia ago after the emperor he served well died. When Qu Yuan, overcome by sorrow, threw himself into the Mi Lo River and drowned, his followers came; fearing the fish would devour his body, they beat paddles on the water to frighten away predators. Today's dragon-boat paddlers recall the poet's ultimate sacrifice.


Dragon Boat Festival 2001

Sloan Lake, 25th Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard

11 a.m.-7 p.m. August 19, free
Shuttle buses will operate every ten minutes from the Lakeside Mall Bank One parking lot, I-70 and Harlan Street, and Denver Health and Human Services, 1200 Federal Boulevard

Denver's races will start relatively small this year, using two Taiwan-style dragon boats towed cross-country from the Iowa headquarters of the American Dragon Boat Association. Just imagine that sight: Each long, thin, canoe-like vessel sports a spectacular dragon head at the bow and a tail at the stern, with wildly colorful scales painted along the body of the boat.

On the water, they'll carry sixteen teams of 21 people each -- eighteen paddlers, one drummer, one flag catcher and one person steering -- during a succession of competitive heats. In a true trial by fire, or at least water, team members will commandeer boats with only a two-hour training session behind them. Luckily, the ADBA will provide each team with an experienced captain at the helm this year. And at the end of the day, the winning team will be handed its prize -- the soon-to-be-coveted AT&T Cup. "We plan to use a cup that's analogous to the Stanley Cup," Solow says. "It'll have the team name engraved on it, and it'll be given to the overall winner from year to year."

That's a great way to start a new tradition, something festival organizers are counting on. Solow says a group of ADBA representatives pronounced Sloan Lake "perfect for dragon-boat racing" during an inspection earlier in the year; that understood blessing bodes well for the festival's shot at longevity. "They encouraged us to try bringing in international teams in the future," he adds. "Then, there would be non-professional and professional brackets competing. Dragon-boat races in other cities have drawn 40,000-plus people."

Solow and his Shaolin Hung Mei Kung Fu Association will be a major force at the festival -- they'll not only head the pre-race parade with a spectacular Dragon Dance, but they'll also perform a Lion Dance and give martial-arts demonstrations throughout the day. In addition to the association's contributions, the festival will feature music and dance, an Asian marketplace, food vendors and a Dragonland tent for kids to enjoy between heats.

But no paddle will hit the water, Solow notes, until after a solemn ceremony -- a blessing for the boats overseen by the Buddha Light Temple. "It's traditional to give the boats life so they're ready to go and race," he says. "It's a very serious moment and will set up the right atmosphere for the races to come."


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