In a move that could elicit consternation and concern for those who have been there, and a giant shrug of the shoulders for those who haven’t, organizers are considering moving the annual International Eelpout Festival from Walker to Bemidji.
The Beltrami County Board has received a permit application from organizers and heard details of the plan at a meeting last week.
Organizers provided a statement on Facebook indicating they are exploring a number of festival locations, adding that no decision has been made about a venue or an exact date for the event.
“We are committed to providing a top-notch experience for our host community, patrons and event sponsors and partners,” the statement said. “We have been in discussions with Walker officials, as well as community leaders in other potential locations, to identify the best course of action for the long-term growth, community support and sustainability of this unique event.”
The festival has become the stuff of Minnesota lore, a tongue-in-cheek Mardi Gras on Ice to celebrate the long-reviled eelpout, a fish considered so disgusting that anglers who hook them often cut their lines rather than handle the slimy, snakelike creature.
The festival was started on Walker Bay on Leech Lake in 1979 as a way to boost tourism. It includes ice fishing, an eelpout fish fry, eelpout rugby, eelpout curling and a polar plunge. Drinking is also often involved.
The festival now routinely brings in more than 10,000 visitors and organizers claim it means more than $1 million to the local economy.
In another classic Minnesota situation, though, there has been some concern that the event has gotten too big for its britches. Last winter, organizers feuded with local law enforcement over whether the ice was thick enough to accommodate anything other than snowmobiles and class 1 and 2 all-terrain vehicles, limiting participants’ ability to haul their icehouses and camp. There have also been concerns about drunkenness, parking and post-festival trash disposal.
The permit application suggests the festival could be held at the same time as the Bemidji Winter Fest, from Feb. 15-18. The festival needs a permit from the county to conduct some of its activities on Lake Bemidji and would limit participants to 5,000 people.
According to the permit application, attendees will be sold buttons for admittance and organizers will limit the number of icehouses on the lake and designate specific areas for them to limit weight.
Two private companies will be hired to provide sewage management, with 100 satellite toilets, and garbage disposal, working with the Department of Natural Resources before and during the event. At least 20 security guards will work the festival.
Two large tents would be constructed on the ice — a 6,600-square-foot structure for music and games that will include an ice bar and stage, and a 400-square-foot tent for medical and emergency services. There also will be 10 vendor tents nearby.
Concerned about the possible move 35 miles to the north, Walker’s Chase on the Lake Resort said on social media it hoped the event would remain in Walker, but assured its guests that if it moves, there will be no cancellation fees applied to their reservations and any deposits will be refunded.
A number of agencies will convene to review the application before a county Planning Commission vote, which is likely in late December, said Beltrami County Environmental Services Director Brent Rud.