WALKER, Minn.-"Who loves America?" an announcer yelled to a growing crowd that had gathered around a rectangular hole in the ice on Leech Lake. The crowd "woo"-ed in agreement and, minutes later, teams of people in lifeguard suits and star-spangled swim trunks leapt into the icy water at the raucous, boozy International Eelpout Festival, which started Thursday, Feb. 22, and wraps up Sunday, Feb. 25, on a frozen stretch of the lake outside Walker.
Snowmobiles and ATVs trundled through neighborhoods of ice houses and makeshift bars, while revelers in heavy coats and choppers cradled beers and fired up grills Saturday afternoon. Ostensibly, the festival centers on an eelpout fishing contest, but attendees could sample eelpout nuggets, take a ride on a dog sled, try their hand at "eelpout rugby," or try to beat the heat in a jalapeno-eating contest.
Lena Clark's friends have headed to the festival for nearly 30 years. They convinced her to drive up for it from suburban Minneapolis three years ago.
Her first impression then?
"Pure awesomeness," Clark said. She keeps coming back, she said, for the atmosphere and to see the people she's met in prior years.
Heidi Wenner and her friends came up last year-their first-to snowmobile, she said, but found there wasn't enough snow, so they went to Eelpout instead.
"We were so surprised of how much we liked it," Wenner said. "We've very comfortable with this crowd. ...They're non-judging. They're just welcome people. Everybody's on the same level."
But not everyone was there to fish or party. Baylee Johnson, a senior applied biology major at BSU, and a handful of other students collected samples on behalf of the Grand Rapids branch of the Department of Natural Resources. At a table outside the Chase on the Lake Resort ice tent, the students removed eelpouts' ear bones-called "otoliths"-and counted the rings they found. Three rings on an otolith, for instance, meant the eelpout was 3 years old.
"Just like a tree," Johnson explained. "There's not a lot of research done on eelpouts, so this is the perfect time to take a festival where a lot of people know how to catch eelpout and then they bring it here and then we got a lot of research done."
The festival has been around for nearly 40 years. Organizers aimed to move it to the Bemidji area this year and, perhaps, merge it with the city's annual Winterfest celebration. But the Bemidji City Council drafted a resolution opposing the move, citing concerns about water quality, public safety, littering, drunk driving, "public indecencies," and the extra effort required of local law enforcement and public works staffers. Festival leaders ultimately decided to keep the event on Leech Lake outside Walker, which is about 38 miles southeast of Bemidji.
"We are committed to further nurturing our collaboration with the business leaders, residents and municipalities here in Walker," Eelpout Festival owner Jared Olson said in a release. "After investigating all options we felt were feasible to ensure the growth and sustainability of the event, we concluded that staying in Walker is the best interest of the festival and the nearly 12,000 people who attend every year."