By Jennah Kelley
I’ve lived in northern Minnesota for almost twenty-three years. I’ve checked off every winter “required”: make snow angels and have snowball fights every winter until I was thirteen, help Mom and Dad put up Christmas lights, complain when the warm goes away and Minnesota becomes colder than the surface of Mars. But I’d never been on a frozen lake before the winter of 2014.
I was in a car with two classmates, Jennifer and Shannon, headed to something called Eelpout. Named after a fish supposedly caught on Leech Lake, this festival is known to be a drunken party on ice. I had no idea what to expect. Since this would be my first time walking on water, frozen or otherwise, images of Jesus walking away from a boat onto a stormy sea sailed before my eyes.
“How are they going to keep the snow off the ice?” I asked from the back seat.
Jen and Shannon exchanged looks that should have been a brooding foreshadowing for me. I’m an English major, for crying out loud. Foreshadowing is something that I’ve understood since my first college class. I innocently assumed that I posed a valid question they hadn’t even thought of yet. How happy and clever am I? Wrong.
It was bitterly cold in the host town of Walker. The first item of business: hot cocoa. We parked a block away from the coffee shop, and even the short walk there was enough to make me wary about just how cold we might get. We ordered three larges with whip, braced ourselves for the wind—and my hot cocoa was gone before we crossed the street.
We had to walk about seven blocks down to the lake entry Shannon directed us to. When we arrived at the snowy staircase where dozens had descended before us, there was almost no one in sight. There were some ice houses and emergency vehicles off to the right, but we soon noticed that the main body of people was about a hundred yards to our left.
I quickly became aware of the inside joke that I missed out on in the car. I suppose I thought I would be stepping onto a clear, glass-covered lake with fish swimming below my feet, and as the newly declared ice queen of this frosty wonderland. In reality there was probably a foot of frozen snow under the foot of unstable powder we sank into with each step. The wind slid over the top layer, which was packed down just enough to not take flight, but not enough to provide a decent walking platform. Even though it wasn’t my nautical kingdom of frosted ice, it was still beautiful. I took out my camera phone and snapped a winterscape.
While we clumsily made our way over the tundra, I glanced back at a sound. There were three snowmobiles coming up behind us. I wished I had my camera out at that moment. Three lights in a scattered formation coming at me in the near failing light would have been a great picture, but they were too close. Once I mourned the lost photo op, I wondered if my flailing friends had noticed the oncoming trio.
“Be careful, guys!” I called in exaggerated alarm.
The snowmobiles slowed and came to a stop next to us instead of plowing us over, which I now acknowledge as highly unlikely. Two drivers had helmets on, and the other one just a hat. The one with a hat seemed to be the oldest, around our age. With a Will Turner beard, he seemed nice enough. But that is, of course, how they lure you in. Everyone you see is Minnesota Nice until you consider that Texas Chainsaw Massacre was based off something that happened in our very own beloved state. My intense and unwarranted paranoia kicked in, and I saw the headlines: Incompetent College Girls Murdered At Eelpout: BSU Reevaluates Admission Standards.
“Where you guys goin’? You need a ride?” the leader asks.
“We don’t really know,” Jen said. I kept silent and Shannon edged toward the humming machines, clearly ready to jump on and be dismembered in the woods.
“Well, if you wanna hop on, we can take you to the ridge,” the evil Will Turner kindly offered.
“Since we aren’t really sure, I think we’ll walk. But thank you so much for stopping,” I replied politely for all of us. Don’t offend the possible psychos, I thought.
As soon as the snowmobilists sped away, a cold gust of wind rocked us.
“Wait, come back,” Shannon weakly pleaded to the wake of snow left by Turner and company. “Why did we say no again?” she asked.
“Stranger danger,” Jennifer and I recited in unison.
As we crunched on through the snow, I mentally congratulated us on being alive and looked around at all the things that seem so simple and beautiful in a sunset on a lake.
All the snow changed colors and seemed to go on forever. There was nothing in the air but the music from the beckoning shelters that promised refuge from the chill.
By Jennifer Von Ohlen
Upon walking into my first Eelpout Festival, my main objective was to find a tent. It did not matter which beer company was sponsoring it or what type of activities were happening inside. All I cared about was getting out of the wind with its gnashing teeth, which bit at my fingers curled around a large cup of hot chocolate.
Up until the week before, I had never heard about the annual festival in Walker, Minnesota. “In a state where it is common to embrace the quirky,” the event’s official website read, “and find great fun in the most unlikely circumstances and weather conditions, this festival is pure Minnesota fun.” Being a lifelong Minnesotan myself, nothing in this statement surprised me.
This was not my first outing on a frozen lake. Still, I was surprised at how calm and relaxed I was while walking onto the ice. My family travels through Walker every year as we head to our cabin on Lake Winnibigoshish, and as we tour the local shops to stretch our legs before undertaking the final hour of driving, I always see the 3D wooden maps of the surrounding lakes that show the depth and terrain of the lakes’ bottoms. I did not know the exact measurements of Leech Lake, but I thought I would have been at least somewhat aware of the possibility of the ice cracking and the water pulling me down by the weight of my winter coat.
The ice never gave way or made a sound to remind me that I really was on a lake deep enough for fishing. The best way I can describe it is that I had complete trust in the thickness of the ice I could not see, which caused all concern to leave my mind. It felt natural to walk on a body of water, like walking on a grassy plain.
Unfortunately, not needing to worry about falling into the lake left me with little distraction to pull my attention away from my now almost cranberry-colored hands. My companions and I eyed the tent closest to us and quickened our pace toward it, all while trying to make it look like we simply walked fast naturally—not that we were being chased by the cold. As we passed through a maze of trailers, attendees, and whatever-motorized-vehicle-pleased-you-most, we teased Shannon about not driving her car onto the lake as everyone else had.
When we finally reached our tent of choice, we circled around to find the entrance. With each corner we turned, however, another white wall stared back at us.
“Where is the door?” we took turns saying, laughing at how
I had seen latex suits before, but never one with a monkey pattern, and never in the dead of winter with no extra coverage.
three college students could not find their way into a tent.
Finally spotting our desire, we filed into the Bud Light tent and were greeted by soothing heat and two men checking IDs. Orange lamps overhead allowed the three of us to take notice of our surroundings and the people who entered. Altogether, there seemed to have been four active dress codes: hunting camouflage; snowmobile-branded jackets; fur hats, mittens, and coats; and attempted originality. A group of college students abiding by three of the four fashion styles entered the tent and showed the ID guys their cards so naturally it almost looked like an automatic gesture.
I recognized one of the girls in the group and recalled seeing her add another layer of pants to her attire as her company got out of a blue, four-door pickup. She was now wearing a hat made of fox fur—the poor creature’s wrinkled face was included on the front for decoration—and had tucked a matching arctic tail into the back of her pants, the price tag still dangling at its side.
We ventured back outside once feeling had returned to our hands and faces. While we headed to another white tent, this one with “Coors” printed across the side, our eyes were pulled in different directions. Given the sharp sting of the air, I was surprised to see the number of people outside. Directly ahead of us, a young man with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack was getting pulled along on his snowboard by a snowmobile.
Rounding a corner to enter the Coors tent, I avoided two frozen piles of what I took to be vomit (or perhaps it was beer drained from a can). When we moved closer to the doorway, a group of men posing for a picture caught our attention, and there was a sudden silence between my companions and me.
It was the type of silence where you know that everyone saw what you just saw, but none of you want the point of focus to notice your approach, so you keep moving ahead in tight-lipped fashion until you are all safely inside the entry line of a new tent.
“Did you see those guys?!” one of us asked the others.
A combination of smiles, giggles, and head shaking escaped from us as mental pictures of the sight entered our thoughts. Three of the four guys we had just passed were wearing full-body monkey suits.
Now, these were not like the gorilla costumes seen in almost every cinema-depicted Halloween party (although I hear those have been seen at Eelpout in the past). These were made of spandex and hugged the body so tightly that one could only wear next to nothing underneath the caramel-colored suit. The costumes’ designers also made sure to include ears and a tail made of the same material so as to match the rest of the suit.
I had seen latex suits before, but never one with a monkey pattern, and never in the dead of winter with no extra coverage, and never worn by a group of men who thought it would be a great idea. The printed faces on the outfits reminded me of those found on sock monkeys; the only thing missing was the cute red nose.
By Shannon McDonald
Two days later, I’m driving back to Walker.
The end of the weekend marks the end of the Eelpout Festival, and as quickly as it was erected, it is gone. The booze tents have vanished. The fire pits are smothered. All of the people buried in winter gear and colorful costumes have gone home, taking their hangovers and motorized couches with them.
The carousing is over for now.
I lock the car and head down a smaller road toward the lake. It’s much easier moving through town without all of the weekend traffic. I pass a few shops, including Café Zona Rosa, and walk down a small hill to the lakeside. The Chase on the Lake sits by the shoreline on the left, a massive, dark figure against the dull blue sky. In the midst of the festival the resort was crawling with people, pulsing with movement and the hum of the live music playing in their bar. Today it is merely a shadow of its former Eelpout glory. The building is silent, but not empty. I see two people clothed in thick coats huddling by the wall, backs hunched against the cold. Whether they are employees or guests I cannot tell, but the resort is somehow less intimidating with their presence.
Leech Lake is a different matter. With the tents and most of the houses gone, it looks barren, almost skeletal. The only trace left of the party-that-was is the stain, a great expanse of ice darkened by car tracks, mud, and booze. The contrast is prominent but not entirely unpleasant, like a storm cloud in a sea of white. Garbage is scattered in a few areas where the trash barrels failed their purpose, peppering the ice with small dark spots. I have little doubt that some of the debris is buried beneath the snow; volunteers will be sent out later to pick up what they can find. Compared to the mess I encountered post-Eelpout a few years before, the lake appears much cleaner. The county must have emphasized the prevention of litter this time around. Whatever their plan, it seems to be working, and I’m impressed.
I walk closer to the lake but stop short of a small staircase leading to the ice. A large green sign to the left advertises the area with large white and yellow letters: “Welcome … WALKER city dock.” In the summer, when the water is open, the stairs lead to a long public dock large enough to accommodate a great number of boats. I came here as a child, mostly for Pepper’s Beach Bar and Grill. It was a little shack of a restaurant with decent food and outdoor tables that put you within ten feet of the water. We would eat and watch the birds that flocked to the shore, searching for scraps of food to snatch.
I close my eyes and can almost picture it now, can almost hear the waves washing up on the sand and pushing against the docks. Instead a bitter gust of wind bites at my exposed face and pulls me quickly back to the present. I turn around, putting my back to the cold to see the spot where the restaurant used to be. It went out of business a while back, and was later taken out to make room for the Chase resort’s expansion and renovations. I still remember it, though, and that’s enough for me.
Even with layers of clothing, my legs lose feeling quickly; the wind has more punch to it than I anticipated. With one last look at the lake, I pull my coat tighter around me and make my way back up the hill into town. The two people by the Chase are no longer there, most likely gone back inside to warm up.
As I walk, I pass a few ragged posters advertising the now-past 35th Annual Eelpout Festival. On one of them in the bottom right corner is a small blue box with white text: “Poor man’s lobster since 1979.” My mother once told me eelpout had a similar taste to the crustacean; I’ve never had it myself (or lobster, for that matter), but I’ll take their word for it.
If my face wasn’t frozen, I might have been able to smile.
Jennah Kelley is a student of life, BSU, her mother and father, and God. Jennifer Von Ohlen grew up in Cokato, Minnesota, and is currently pursuing a degree in creative and professional writing. If she is not reading, she can be found scribbling in one of her many notebooks. Shannon McDonald is an English education major who plans to graduate in the fall of 2015 from Bemidji State University.