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A colorful cast of characters was the hallmark of the 30th Annual Eelpout Festival in Walker. Twelve-year-old Isabella Vizenor of Park Rapids takes the polar plunge. She raised $115 to jump into icy waters. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Eelpout Festival brings a sudsy economic stimulus plan to Walker

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When Ken Bresley moved to Walker several decades ago to found his housing business, his first winter was beyond dreary.

"I thought they'd turned out the lights on all the businesses and told everyone to go home," he recalled. He started appealing to civic leaders to organize something that would bring people to the north country in the dead o f winter.

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"We tried ice fishing contests and sled dog races," he said. "They just didn't go."

His eureka moment came when he went out ice fishing with his buddies and caught an eelpout.

"What do I do with this?" he asked.

"Nothing," was the reply. "We just leave them on the ice to die."

Bresley was intrigued by the homely fish no one would take home - or put back in the lake. An idea was born: How about a festival to celebrate this unwanted species, he asked himself. Life's reject surely had a place in the north country, he surmised.

"Our first year we thought we'd get two-three hundred people," he said. "A thousand showed up. We ran out of buttons, prizes. We didn't know what we were doing."

But he was convinced the Eelpout Festival was a mid-winter winner. "We had it in January back then."

Thirty years later, Walker hosted 10,000 winter-weary funsters last weekend.

The festival has surely mirrored the often politically incorrect founder, who brought winces from the crowd when he got on the public address system.

The festival celebrates debauchery, arrested development and fermented products in large quantity.

It had a few years of struggle, Bresley said, "but it really took off when the Moondance Jam (founder Bill Bieloh) got involved."

Mostly an adult venue, the festival made a concession to family-friendly entertainment with the advent of the Polar Plunge, a huge fundraiser for the Walker Area Community Center. This year's plunge raised nearly $25,000. More than 140 foolhardy adults and brave kids raised enough money to sponsor their jumps into the icy-cold waters of Leech Lake.

Isabella Vizenor, 12, of Park Rapids, was one of the brave. She raised $115 and plunged into the frigid lake - all by herself. Most other jumpers went in teams. Isabella didn't need the moral support to fortify her. She jumped, swam across the pond cut into the lake, and grabbed a towel, looking hale and hearty. The only words from her blue lips were, "Brrrrr."

The festival was a sudsy economic stimulus package for Walker. All 70 of the newly opened Chase Hotel's rooms and all 40 condos were filled to capacity.

"If we had a rare vacancy, it filled quickly from our waiting list," said Chase guest services manager Becky Stading.

Chase food and beverage manager James Taylor was grinning from ear to ear, keeping in touch with the platoon of workers via two-way radio.

"We've got 48 kegs out in the trailer," he said, gesturing behind the tent. "I'm hoping it'll be enough." It was - barely.

Bars and restaurants enjoyed overflow crowds; retailers mostly catered to the gawkers.

Eelpout, after all, is a primo spectator sport.

Parades of couches on sleds, a whole bar, a hammock and a group towing a mothballed satellite dish slid up and down the icy avenues.

One tent hosted a weekend bachelor party. Almost none of the weekend company was actually ice fishing for eelpout, although that is one of the advertised events. No matter. The beer still flowed.

The Chase spent months preparing for the event. Keith Berg, a first-time "pouter" from Ham Lake wearing a dead coyote from head to waist, was not one of its guests. He and his buddies - and thousands of others - were camping out on the ice for the weekend. As Isabella would say, "Brrrrr."

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