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Rollicking fun at Eelpout Festival in Walker

The Eelpout Festival revels in unique sleds, pulled along the icy avenues by anything that will move. Although couches are a favorite, hammocks, chairs and other furniture is tow-worthy in the eyes of "Pouters." Sarah Smith / Park Rapids (Minn.) Enterprise

WALKER, Minn. - When a town of 1,145 people invites 10,000 guests over for the weekend, it could be perceived as hubris run amok.

But this is Walker, and the company is a crowd of inebriated eelpout enthusiasts (sobriety check - repeat that three times), so rollicking fun trumps hubris.

The 30th annual Eelpout Festival kicked off Friday in celebration of a cold-water fish with the body of a sea snake and the face of a catfish; so ugly its mother is the only Minnesota species to spawn in the dead of winter, when the world has its eyes closed. Go figure.

And the 30-year-old suffers from a terminal case of arrested development. This celebration eschews aging or acting responsibly.

Cases in point: baby boomers Dave Link and Kevin Hennes of Shakopee, wearing giant foam beer steins on their heads.

"We've been coming more than 20 years," Link said. "We had to skip a few years when the kids were little."

And what would the men do if they spotted their grown kids out on the ice today?

"Watch them - very carefully!" they laughed in unison.

Keith Berg of Ham Lake was attending his first festival. Someone obviously had clued him in to the dress code - he had a dead coyote draped from his head down his torso.

Was he going out fishing? He looked around, confused, as if he was searching for the right answer to a test.

"Uuuuhh, I think maybe later," was the response. There was not a monofilament line to be seen anywhere, even though ice augers were in abundance.

Local fish lore says the burbot, its actual name, is not a particularly savvy fish and has a propensity to strike just before dusk, when the average Joe has left work for the fish house.

An after-hours beer and a burbot. Can life get any better?

The festival's part debauchery, a smattering of angling prowess and all spectator sport. For most folks, it's mostly about taking a brisk break from the doldrums - Minnesota's version of a winter cruise. Hold the sunscreen.

The raucous event began when the newly built Chase Hotel staff unveiled its ice bar, complete with eelpout sculptures gracing either end of the 10-foot carving, out in a massive tent on the ice. Every highway into Walker was clogged with a parade of fish houses on trailers streaming in Friday.

This is the Chase's first "Pout" year. Newly opened last summer, its 70 rooms and 40 condos were full to capacity, said Becky Stading, guest services manager.

"If we had a rare vacancy, it filled quickly from our waiting list," she said.

James Taylor, Chase food and beverage manager, 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."

Taylor, his British accent standing out in the crowd, said he began vacationing on Leech Lake many years ago and became so enthralled with the place, he stayed. He said the hotel has been preparing for the event for several months. It is, after all, a much-needed economic stimulus package - of the foamy kind.

Randy Reynolds of Blue Springs, Mo., looking like a down-stuffed doughboy, entered the beer tent panting. "I'm just sweating," said the first-timer. Guess nobody passed along the message that layering was a good clothing option.

By Saturday, "hair of the dog" specials were the popular bar choice, the music was blaring and the guests were straggling out of their icehouses and tents.

Many sleep on the ice. Some of the company, feeling no pain, passed out on couches overnight on the ice, to sleep it off until the next day. But as a sign the guests were growing up, many staying farther away accepted the services of designated drivers.

The home décor contest would have made Martha Stewart wince. One popular entrant was the Mardi Gras house, where tacky didn't quite describe the finished effect: Pink and green wallpaper, beads, a deer head smoking a pipe while imbibing from a keg and a chandelier.

Then there was the "quack-coon" perched atop another fish house - part raccoon, past goose, part something else. A mad taxidermist concocted the item. "We found it at a swap meet," said Joe Hendricks and Jerry Almgren, pouters from Kimball.

Single-digit temps didn't deter the annual polar plunge. The endless variety of couches, hammocks and other man-made sleds paraded up and down the icy avenues on the lake.

A group of Gen-Xers on an ATV was towing a giant satellite dish with beer-swilling riders bumping around inside. They were busted by polite conservation officers for having an improper trailer hitch.

More than a dozen COs have been assigned to keep the peace at the event.

The festival concludes today. The hangovers could last a while longer.