Equal to Eelpout? Walker holds new event after long-running festival is canceled

Guests take shots off an ice luge that bore the event's name at the Frozen Block Party in Walker, Minn. (Bria Barton | Bemidji Pioneer)

WALKER, Minn. — The first Frozen Block Party was held in Walker this past weekend, a time when the unexpectedly cancelled International Eelpout Festival would have been in full swing.

Attendance was noticeably smaller than its predecessor’s from past years; but given that organizers only had a month and a half to plan the Frozen Block Party, the event succeeded in bringing out the community to participate.

Throughout the weekend, Walker businesses held specials and mini-events, attempting to salvage lost revenue brought on by the International Eelpout Festival’s cancellation in early January.

In past years, a crowd of 10,000 would flock to the festival town for four days of partying, spending and honoring the notoriously ugly fish.

“Everyone was caught off guard with (the Eelpout Festival’s cancellation),” said Deb Wilkening, who owns Cafe Zona Rosa in Walker with her husband Gary. “It all changed really fast for everybody.”


On Saturday, the Wilkenings’ daughter hosted a boozy scavenger hunt from their Mexican restaurant, which brought out teams ready to traverse the town and show their support for the Frozen Block Party and other local businesses.

From taking a bite of a stranger’s food to throwing back shots, teams sacrificed their humility -- and their sobriety -- for a chance at the grand prize.

“It was good to see that many people participated,” Deb said. “What a beautiful day, it really made a difference.”

Across the street from Cafe Zona Rosa, a large tent had been set up by Chase on the Lake, which functioned as the main party venue throughout the event. Inside, an ice bar had been constructed, allowing guests to try out beverages supplied by the event’s alcohol sponsors, among others.

In the early afternoon of that day, people flocked to the tent to begin celebrating and playing a few rounds of music bingo. Afterwards, they could also try their hand at stacking wine cans and competing in beer pong and bean bag tournaments.

As it got later into the evening, more people gradually began to flow into the tent, in anticipation for the nightly musical performances from bands around the region.

Nearby on the lake, another tent had also been assembled, which catered to party-goers, ice anglers and snowmobilers, luring them in with the tempting smell of deep-fried eelpout nuggets -- a mainstay snack of festivals past.

But the nuggets weren’t the only reminder of what used to be.


From the shirts people wore to the bygone memories they rehashed out on the lake, there were other lingering indicators that the Eelpout Festival was still there and very much alive in spirit.

And although there was a new kid on the block this year, it seemed to be the general consensus that the town was accepting and making the most of the hand it was dealt.

“It’s not the same,” Deb said. “But maybe if they’re going to keep it the same for next year, they can do a little more with it. If they can build on it with different people getting involved, it’d be great.”

Bria Barton covers travel and tourism for Forum News Service and is based at the Bemidji Pioneer. A South Carolina native and USC grad, she can be found exploring Minnesota’s abundance of towns, food and culture. Follow her on Instagram @briabarton.
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