Willamette River Unicorns and Dragonflies, composed of women from various Salem teams, race at Paddle for Life. (Mary Louise VanNatta/Special to Salem Reporter)

If you’re driving over the West Salem bridge, you may see one of the Salem Multicultural Institute’s dragon boat teams practicing. The nonprofit owns one 20-seat boat, and its teams hold practices throughout the week.

Three Salem teams, the Angry Unicorns, Highland Dragons, and Willamette River Dragons and Dragonflies, traveled to Ridgefield, Washington on Aug. 7 to compete in the Paddle for Life event, a fundraiser for a local Clark County charity, Hope 311, that provides financial assistance for those in need.

Local city officials participated in the Eye Dotting Ceremony. This Chinese ritual takes place before the races and awakens the ceremonial dragon statue by giving him sight. Each boat has a dragon head mounted to the front of the boat with its tail at the end. The modern sport of dragon boating traditionally includes 20 paddlers, sitting two to a bench in a canoe-like boat approximately 40 feet long. A caller sits at the front, and a steerer (or tiller) stands at the back. The Paddle for Life races used small boats with room for only ten paddlers.

Angry Unicorn team captains Liz Beeles and Erin Ellis recruited all women paddlers from their team to race in the unique 10-person boat. Husband-wife team Kerri Stepisnik is the team caller, and John Stepisnik serves as the tiller.

The Highland Roosters’ colors are Scottish plaid of forest green and blue. This team made their way toward the dock in a procession with a speaker playing bagpipes. The team, led by Angela Watts and Tasmyn Petlansky, made it to the co-ed semifinals.

The Willamette River Dragons, coordinated by Maggie Crawford, had been practicing for the race for weeks.  They advanced to the women’s semi-finals, placing fourth in the division. Crawford also put together a hybrid team of paddlers that included paddlers from the Unsinkables (cancer survivors), the Unicorns and the River Dragons.

During the World Beat Festival in May, the multicultural institute holds its own dragon boat races. Organizers hope the festival will return next year along with the races.

Dragon boat paddling originated from the Pearl River Delta region of China's southern Guangdong Province. The sport dates back 2000 years throughout southern China.  Races were held in the original Greek Olympic games.

The Dragon boat paddling season ends in October, and the team will continue to practice under Covid protocols.

Salem’s Angry Unicorn Dragonboat Team (Mary Louise VanNatta/Special to Salem Reporter)

Erin Ellis demonstrates the “A-Frame” paddle position (Mary Louise VanNatta/Special to Salem Reporter)

Salem’s Willamette River Dragons line up to race. (Mary Louise VanNatta/Special to Salem Reporter)

Salem’s Highland Roosters prepare to race at Paddle for Life (Mary Louise VanNatta/Special to Salem Reporter)

Marissa Shoemaker and her pup attend Paddle for Life (Mary Louise VanNatta/Special to Salem Reporter)

Mary Louise VanNatta is a Salem public relations professional, writing regularly for Salem Reporter. 

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