By Toni Ann Pennello, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — The dragon boat racers, hosted by the Riverfront Parks Committee, returned to Nesbitt Park and the Susquehanna River on Sunday for the seventh year.
Participants in the event race on two long, canoe-like boats with the faces of dragons on them. Six teams participated in the race this year, each with up to 20 members, and raced 200 yards of the Susquehanna River. The boats can fit 22 passengers; 20 for the paddlers, one for a drummer to help them paddle in rhythm and one for an expert to help steer.
The boats were supplied by 22Dragons, a company based out of Montreal, said Moxie Niedenthal, a volunteer with the committee who helped organize the event. The company also sends trainers to get novice participants up to speed, and to help steer the boats. The practice session was on Friday.
The difficulty of the race is not a matter of strength, committee volunteer Marleen Troy said.
“It’s not how strong you are. It’s how much your team is in coordination, so it’s more of a team building kind of thing,” Troy explained.
Niedenthal added that because everyone must paddle at the same time, and there is a short, unforgiving race distance, participants are often surprised at how difficult dragon racing is.
The six teams that participated were Penn State Wilkes-Barre, the Family Services Association, Geisinger Health Plan, Downtown Arts, the Wilkes-Barre Family YMCA and the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association.
In the end, Penn State took home the first-place medal, the YMCA came in second and Downtown Arts came in third.
Pam Young, of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association, said she has been attending the event for a few years — this year, she and her teammates made a day of it.
“(The best part is) getting together with friends and enjoying the day. We sit down, we have some drinks, food and some snacks and enjoy the beautiful surroundings of Wilkes-Barre; gorgeous trees, lovely river,” she said.
Gina Malsky owns Downtown Arts, a re-purposed church on N. Franklin Street, Wilkes-Barre, that houses many artists, dancers and local programs. She said that for the first few years, Downtown Arts participated by painting the eyes on the dragons during the opening ceremony.
“That’s how the race starts, because the eyes are closed, and we would paint the eye to open it, and that would start the ceremony,” she said. This year, she decided to bring a team of racers in celebration of her facility’s 10-year anniversary.
John Maday, executive director of the Riverfront Parks Committee, said he started the event shortly after finding out about it and doing some research.
“There’s a lot of tradition to it, about 2,000 years, and it’s extremely popular across Canada,” Maday said.
“I thought it would be interesting because it’s an event that has to be held on the water … and we have a body of water here,” he added. “To take on an event that has all this history, and all the good that it brings, we figured, why not try it?”
Maday said that the event fits into the committee’s mission of environmental education.
“Some may ask, ‘what does that have to do with environmental education?’ Well, it is, because, if you think about it, it brings people down to the river,” Maday said. “They’re outside, they’re enjoying and embracing nature.”