Some suspect it was all just a prank played by the Miller boys — one named John, the other “Tut” — who, during the mid-1800s (according to legend), masterminded the creation of a dragon lurking in the dark waters of Lake Orion, a foreboding green behemoth with black spots and scales that dripped seaweed and slime, breathed fire and grew — with each new sighting — from 18 to 80 feet. (Dragons do this, growing and aging fast, confirms Lake Orion Community Schools. But they live forever.)
A local newspaper report of Mrs. Vincent Brown’s encounter with the beast while fishing with two nieces in a rowboat (she bravely batted its head with a board) instilled a fear of swimming in the lake and led to dragon blame for mishaps like missing livestock and tipped boats. Eventually word spread that the two boys at 312 S. Broadway had laboriously sewn cloth over wire rings attached to a wood base on wheels and launched their “creature” into Lake Orion with a wire leash.
While doubters offered other rationale for alleged serpent sightings (i.e., the dragon was just shadows cast by a tree), swelling town pride in the resident murky monster began to overshadow its questionable origins.
Today, Lake Orion’s long-held affection for its urban legend is upheld by high school sports teams (“The Dragons”) and an annual summer event that’s growing just as fast as any serpent that plied these waters.
Dragon on the Lake began six years ago as a small 30th anniversary celebration for the Orion Art Center, says Lauren Dinneweth, its executive director. “We had a few crafts, a couple inflatables and a chalk-drawing contest.”
Now a top community affair, the August weekend (22-24) encompasses some 10 downtown blocks and features a Lakeside Living Art Fair with juried exhibitors, a 5K run, three stages of entertainment, a lighted boat parade, a kids’ zone and an array of vendors.
But the main attraction bares teeth in the lake.
“With Lake Orion’s history,” Dinnoweth says, “we thought it would be great to add dragon boat racing.”
Aided by community sponsors, Orion Art Center brings in 30-40 of the elaborately decorated, 41-foot-long crafts through Great White North Dragon Boat (GWN). The Canadian company, a driving force behind this water sport’s catapulting popularity, also provides start-to-finish event management services including pre-race day training, a steer guide and a drummer for each boat, which requires 20 paddlers.
“It’s not usually the brawniest team that wins,” says Dinneweth, adding that participants range in age from 16 to 80, “but the one that best communicates. Your team of 20 paddlers has to come together, to row as one. In this digital age, people still need this kind of communal experience on a deeper, personal level.”
While no experience is needed and many teams compete just for fun, others such as those in the cancer survivor division combine a good time with raising funds and awareness, Dinneweth adds. This will be the fifth year Lake Orion’s dragon boat races raise money for scholarships, classes, camps and other charities; Dragon on the Lake donates a portion of its own event proceeds to cancer research and awareness.
“Working together as a team,” she says, “can have a powerful impact on healing and wellness.”
The boat is about 41 feet long and holds a team of 22 people. Led by a steer guide, 20 are paddlers, while a drummer keeps the pace.
The race is 300 meters and takes between two to three minutes. Each team races three times on Sunday.
Learn more at dragononthelake.com.