By Michelle McChristie

In 2018, the Dragons of Hope dragon boat team noticed their boat was in dire straits. Years of use and outdoor storage had taken their toll: wood was rotting, the fibreglass had splinters, and the seats were collapsing. True to the spirit of the local dragon boat community, another team—the Legends—stepped in and refurbished the boat as a surprise.

“The Legends are Thunder Bay’s longest-running dragon boat team and they have always been fans of the Dragons of Hope,” says Dave Koski. The team volunteered to do an “enthusiastic amateur” restoration, addressing most of the damage and mainly focussing on the interior. After working on the boat for a total of 80 hours over two months, they presented the finished product to the Dragons of Hope on October 17.

“The Legends have always been our most enthusiastic supporters and have always helped us when we were short paddlers or needed help getting our boat in and out of the water,” says Gail Poliszczak who joined the Dragons of Hope when it formed in 1999 and was known as Debbie’s Eagles.

A plaque honouring teammates who have passed (plaque donated by Nu-Tech Metals)

“The timing of the refurbishing of the dragon boat couldn’t have come at a better time to lift the ladies’ spirits,” says coach Saira VanderWees. “It is Breast Cancer Awareness month and the ladies haven’t been able to paddle for two seasons due to the state of their boat and the temporary closure of Boulevard Lake.”

A particularly thoughtful gesture, The Legends installed a plaque at the front of the boat with the names of Dragons of Hope paddlers that have passed away. For VanderWees, it’s a reminder “that these warrior women’s spirits live on and will continue to inspire the team each time they paddle.”

While Thunder Bay’s dragon boat festival has been on hiatus for the past few years, some teams continue to paddle and socialize with one another. “Even when the festival was not held in Thunder Bay, the Dragons of Hope tried to get out at least once a week to paddle,” says Poliszczak. “We all look forward to being on the water just relaxing and being together.”

According to VanderWees, the local Dragons of Hope team grew out of a movement started in 1996 by Dr. Don McKenzie, a professor at the University of British Columbia. McKenzie wanted to study the effects of exercise on breast cancer survivors and chose dragon boat paddling which VanderWees describes as “the epitome of strenuous, repetitive upper body exercise.”

McKenzie trained 24 volunteers in a gym for three months and taught them paddling techniques. At the end of the three-month season on the water, none of the volunteers had lymphedema (a problem that can occur when lymph nodes are removed which disrupts the flow of lymph and leads to swelling). As a positive side-effect, VanderWees says the volunteers fell in love with the camaraderie and support of their fellow paddlers. They also realized that dragon boat paddling could become a means to raise awareness of breast cancer and of the ability of survivors to lead normal lives.

“The Dragons of Hope is a team of women with a very special commonality,” says VanderWees. “They are a great support to each other and are exceptionally welcoming to any person who is newly diagnosed. The love and camaraderie that fills the dragon boat at each practice is overwhelming. These ladies share their stories, build each other up, and make a point to stay connected even during the winter months. I consider myself blessed and grateful to be their coach and they inspire me every single day.”