That didn’t take long. The Cass County sheriff announced a decision Monday to restrict vehicle traffic on Leech Lake’s Walker Bay during the annual Eelpout Festival. Within hours, organizers were crying foul, noting the ice is plenty thick enough to handle all the traffic for season’s largest tourism draw in Walker, Minn.
At the core of the dispute: How thick does ice have to be for such a gathering?
Jared Olson, who heads the festival, said he has taken ice measurements over the past week in 10 different spots in the bay and says there is 24 inches of ice in most places, more than last year when similar driving restrictions were put in place.
Olson said he is all for safety and touts the festival’s 38-year run without an incident. But he points to the $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake in Brainerd and other regional events that require only 18 to 20 inches of ice as the minimum thickness to allow vehicle traffic on the lake. He wonders why 24 inches is not enough.
“My question is how is the call made?” he said. “We have 2 feet of ice — and that is a lot of ice. Our decision seems to be a gut check on whether or not we allow it. I get safety, I don’t want anything to happen. I’m looking for more consistency. Going forward, some consistency would help me and the town out.”
Sheriff Tom Burch said in a news release Monday that “ice conditions and forecast unseasonably warm temperatures have created a concern for public safety during Eelpout Festival due to a large volume of vehicle and ice hour traffic expected. Event and participant safety is our number one priority.”
A sheriff’s office spokesman said Monday that the plan could be updated if conditions change. The festival is Feb. 23-26.
More than 12,000 people take in the festival in years when ice thickness allows for unrestricted travel on the lake and brings in close to $1 million to the local economy, Olson said. But like last year, when vehicle restrictions also were in place, attendance can drop to as low as 6,000 to 8,000, Olson said.
“That hurts all the businesses in town, from the local minnow guy to propane suppliers to the guy renting fish houses,” Olson said. “This is a big decision.”
In a letter to Walker business owners, Olson asked if “decisions are being made in a prudent and timely manner as a direct result of accurate and applicable measurements? Or a premature declaration based on more convenient speculation vs. a true safety issue?”
Olson says it is the sheriff’s call on whether to restrict traffic, but he’s hoping to come up with a more comprehensive and definitive set of guidelines on how to arrive at the decision.
Under the restriction imposed, only snowmobiles and class 1 and 2 all-terrain vehicles will be allowed on Leech Lake’s Walker Bay.
The issue, Olson says, is that by not allowing trucks on the lake after noon Friday, many people skip the festival because they can’t get their fish houses set up. And on Sunday, “it’s like a traffic jam out there trying to get off the lake.”
And that is what keeps people away, he said.