by Kyle Farris photography by Jillian Gandsey
Every summer they snap into place like pieces to an old puzzle.
The HydraHeads are usually the best team at the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival, in large part because they fit neatly together, unaffected by time. They can convene after a year apart, some having not seen each other since they won the last time, and then perform with an efficiency that is almost mechanical.
Their boat is powered by synchrony, the same way others are powered by diesel or steam.
“You’re sitting in a 600-pound boat with 2,000 pounds of people,” said John Arenz, who paddles in one of the middle rows and has been there since the beginning. “You need to stay in beautiful synchronization, you need to hit the power stroke. You’ve got to put it all together, or the boat won’t move.”
Even the clumsiest paddling will move a boat — maybe not all that fast, or in the right direction, and certainly not in a way that meets HydraHead standards. The team’s captain, Mark Walters, owns Headwaters Canoe & Kayak shop in Bemidji, and he didn’t start the HydraHeads so they could finish behind anybody.
“Our plan,” he said, “is to win.”
Some teams at the festival, including the one fielded by the city’s newspaper, set low expectations or none at all. They wriggle into matching T-shirts and sit atop the hill that slopes down to the lake, locked in a pleasant pattern of eating sandwiches and drinking beer, a pattern broken only when it’s time to race.
The Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival attracts about 60 teams with about 20 paddlers on each, and a winner is found after a series of heats that lasts until the sun starts to drop for the evening. All day the lakeside hill is a village of canopy tents where people plop into lawn chairs with an abundance of built-in cupholders — people who can’t be bothered to get up unless it’s to dig through the cooler, or to chuck a beanbag at a round hole.
“That’s fine,” Walters said. “Some teams just want to have fun, and that’s great.”
But, he reasons, winning is fun too.
The HydraHeads have won five of the eight festivals since the team was founded, including the past three. It may well be four after this year’s races Aug. 6, if the HydraHeads can slip once more past the Canadians from Winnipeg. Listen to Walters, and they sound like the biggest threat.
“They have their own club, like a country club with membership fees,” he said. “They train indoors in the winter. They have a huge pool.”
The HydraHeads would be an underdog story — able against all odds to defeat the well-organized and rigorously trained paddlers from the North — if they weren’t such a powerhouse themselves.
The Bemidji team might go a year without meeting as a complete unit, but they still train individually or in small groups if they have teammates who live nearby.
Walters created the team with an image in mind. He reached out to people who frequented his shop, assembling a team of triathletes and outdoor enthusiasts from here and across the state — Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. They paddle across lakes and down rivers in their spare time, not because they wish to achieve something, but because of the uncomplicated joy of the thing itself.
“It was a brainchild of mine,” Walters said. “We wanted to put everyone in a boat, and see what happened.”
Their vessel is a true puzzle.
Dragon Boats have 10 rows with room for two people in each, a capacity of 20 paddlers. Making the seating chart, Walters said he takes personality into account. He likes to group people with similar strokes, and by that measure he usually ends up next to Arenz.
“It’s all about understanding how the boat moves through the water,” Arenz said.
The front holds the pacers, the paddlers who can maintain a rhythm so the rest of the boat doesn’t lose theirs.
The middle holds the muscle — “the boat’s engine,” according to Walters.
And the back holds the sprinters and the thinkers, those who give a boat its hidden boost, and can pick through the choppiness to find a smooth patch of water that will accept their paddle.
HydraHeads don’t panic, said Leif Ronnander, who trains with Walters and Arenz to a point where the festival becomes a production the trio has rehearsed over and over. They don’t panic, he said, “even if we bang a paddle.”
He’s talking about knocking your paddle accidentally against a teammate’s. Normal teams, teams that don’t have a sworn rival in Canada, do it all the time.
It’s not as if the HydraHeads are all fit 20-somethings who should be on the cover of a magazine. Some people on this dream team have little wrinkles, slight bellies and touches of gray in their hair.
But so complete is their dominance over most of their competitors that they feel comfortable giving out pointers. In the weeks before the festival, Walters and his teammates host clinics where they teach teams to maneuver a dragon boat the right way.
“That’s the beauty of it,” that it doesn’t take long for a team to go from bad to halfway decent, Walters said. “You can do pretty damn good, but then how do you get better? Get great?”
The HydraHeads have reached an acute level of excellence some teams never could.
They’ll train your team, and then they’ll beat your team. They’ll race their race with little regard for what other boats are doing, because their best will probably be good enough. And after they unclick their life jackets and climb out of their boat, they’ll go grab a beer no matter their finish.
This team cares, Arenz said, “but we don’t get depressed or anything.”
From the perch on the hill, you can see them moving with smooth speed across the still blue water, a flash of matching yellow cotton streaking out in front. The HydraHeads weren’t put on this earth to paddle a few minutes once a year in a long, wooden boat.
It only seems that way to the people in their wake.