WALKER, Minn. — In what would have been the 41st year of celebrating the notoriously ugly bottom-dwelling fish, the International Eelpout Festival bid an unexpected adieu to upcoming plans for a 2020 bash in Walker, leaving its fate uncertain.
Jared Olson, the organizer of the festival, announced the cancellation on the event’s official Facebook page Thursday, Jan. 2, citing “an impasse on lake enforcement” with Cass County along with increasing costs as leading reasons for its indefinite postponement.
“Because we are the only permit holder required to supply services and clean up, and are not allowed to control the lake, the economics no longer work,” the Facebook post said.
Olson later detailed the “impasse” in a phone interview.
He said -- although he had been the festival organizer for nine years -- he had no control over the activities on Leech Lake, a public body of water, throughout the event. And while he was required to obtain a Water Surface Use Event Permit by Cass County as well as commit “tens of thousands of dollars on lake clean up annually,” others involved in the festival were not held to the same standards.
“The issue is I can’t control who comes and goes out there (on the lake), so I’m holding the permit, but there are three or four other commercial tents out there selling food and beer and liquor -- some of which have permits and some of which don’t,” Olson said.
“But they’re not required to spend $1 to help with anything, so the organization and the enforcement of the lake has really been the problem – and it always has been.”
Cass County Administrator Josh Stevenson said the county “didn’t have any concerns (with the festival) in this year in particular,” and he said he was also unaware of the “impasse on lake enforcement” addressed by Olson in the Facebook post.
“Nothing has really changed,” Stevenson said. “We’re not aware of any problems with that.”
The four-day festival, which began in 1979 and attracts more than 10,000 attendees to the small northern Minnesota town, had “multiplied substantially” over the years in regard to attendance, which resulted in “more traffic, more trash and more safety concerns.”
Along with the cost for lake clean up, additional festival expenses included “supplied services such as porta-potties, ice road maintenance and trash pick-up,” according to the Facebook post.
“The costs of all these items are rising and the inability to enforce clean up and participation for all festival goers, attendees and vendors it is no longer feasible to operate the festival under the County requirements that change and increase every year.”
Stevenson said he was unaware of the alleged issues Olson addressed about Cass County.
“I’m not aware of what they’re talking about,” Stevenson said. “The requirements with that water surface permit have been basically the same now for, I want to say, the last three or four years -- you need to have a garbage plan and a sanitation plan.”
Olson said the lake clean up had initially cost about $5,000 when he began work with the festival nine years ago. However, he said costs were now over $30,000. And over the past three years, Cass County had “required a company from the Cities to come up and do it,” which cost him about $14,000.
Stevenson initially said he had no comment in response to Olson’s statement, but then noted he had “no idea what (festival organizers) pay.” He also added, “It's my recollection that the festival owners contracted with a private vendor voluntarily after hearing concerns from lake shore owners and the (Leech) Lake Association.”
Olson also said Cass County wanted him to get an insurance policy to cover the public body of water as well as have an emergency evacuation plan of the lake for the event in late February.
Last year, cars were towed off the ice during the festival due to snow and slush, according to Olson. He said he was sent a $12,000 bill for the towing, which he never agreed to pay.
“This year, they wanted an emergency evacuation plan of the lake, and again, this goes back to this is still a public body of water, which you control. But you’re wanting me to do all these things to control it, and I’m not the law,” Olson said. “You are. It’s always been a back-and-forth issue.”
Stevenson said Cass County never sent a bill to Olson for the towing.
“All we asked for is if there was going to be a water surface permit applied for -- and as of right now, they never applied for one -- we just said going forward you have to have a parking plan.”
On Dec. 31, the Pilot-Independent in Walker reported changes to the event, detailing that “the festival (could not) justify the cost of conducting activities on the water, prompting the festival to move all commercial and vendor activities to land.”
“A street closure and city park permit (had) been approved by Walker City Council so the festival (could) move off the lake,” the article added.
“(A festival committee) was actually pretty glad to see that they were in the process of moving things to shore for a number of reasons, primarily based on the festival promoters’ costs,” Stevenson said. “It’s our understanding that it was very expensive for them to try to conduct that activity on the ice, especially with unpredictable weather.”
However, Thursday’s Facebook post stated, “this too was not going to allow for acceptable permit process for both parties.”
“The city of Walker voted to allow the tent and have the event in town, but with the premise that we got the county permit for the lake again, which I told them I’m not going to do, I can’t afford it,” Olson said.
The festival, which was scheduled for Feb. 20-23, also faced additional setbacks leading to its cancellation, including the omission of its fishing contest.
Only last year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reclassified the eelpout from a rough fish to a game fish, which would make contest rules too difficult for promoters to accommodate.
But for now, Olson said he’s still working with the city of Walker in the hopes of still “(putting) something together” resembling the festival since “it’s a slow time of year when everybody needs more tourism in their area.”
As for the future of the Eelpout Festival, Olson hopes it will make a comeback, but “a lot would have to change" and he "(doesn't) know that they're willing to do that.”
“It would have been 41 years now, and maybe it is time for a pause to try to get reorganized,” Olson said. “And, hopefully, something good will come out of it. But as for now, it’s where it stands: the economics don't work.”