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OC: It's the real eel deal

by: photo by PATRICK SHERMAN, OC Mayor Alice Norris and West Linn Mayor Norm King.

Celebrating its third year as Oregon City's premier cultural event, Eel Fest has demonstrated the tenacity of its namesake, the pacific lamprey - clinging to the community like a lamprey clinging to a salmon.

'It's growing like topsy,' said David Porter, executive director of the Interpretive Center at the End of the Oregon Trail. 'The eels are the same size they have always been, however.'

That remarks will no doubt be welcome news to the fishermen who frequent the river below the Willamette Falls, where the lamprey lurk. In place of a mouth, each has a fleshy ring studded with teeth.

Additional welcome news came from the organizers of Portland's Rose Festival, which has sanctioned Eel Fest as part of its summer celebration.

'I saw the name of the event, and I immediately wanted to get involved,' said Bob Henry, a volunteer Rosarian who joined local officials and festival organizers on the Belle of the Falls to kick off the event.

'Having been sanctioned by the Rose Festival, this event is promoted on our website and through other promotional activities, and they are allowed to use the Rose Festival logo,' Henry said.

He explained that by linking with other events throughout the region, the Rose Festival is expanding to cover activities as far away as the coast and Mt. Hood, and beyond its traditional one-week schedule.

'An event has to pass some pretty stringent criteria before it becomes an officially sanctioned Rose Festival event - not all events that apply are accepted' Henry explained. 'It has to be run by a non-profit organization, and benefit a local charity.'

The Oregon City Rotary Club hopes to raise $10,000 through this year's festival, with a majority of those funds flowing from sponsors and the attendees at a dinner held this past Thursday in the Tumwater Room.

'Last year, we had eels to sample,' recalled Porter. 'I thought it was great - it reminded me of halibut - but it was repugnant to some people.'

Regardless of whether or not they possessed the gastronomical fortitude to consume the featured dish, attendees benefited the needy at home and around the world, according to Paul Schultz, president of the Rotary Club.

'We're hoping that it will become profitable, to support our local and international efforts,' he said. 'Worldwide, our primary mission is to eliminate polio.'

In the local area, money raised by Eel Fest will help pay for the Clackamas Women's Shelter, scholarships at Clackamas Community College, museums and other causes.

Mayor Alice Norris sees Eel Fest as an opportunity for Oregon City to leverage the value of its liquid assets.

'It emphasizes our connection with the river,' she said. 'Our plans are moving forward to create better access to the river, and if the project at Clackamette Cove goes ahead, that would create our first residences on the water outside of the Canemah District.

'Hopefully, the festival will lure visitors who are curious about lampreys and why a community would celebrate in this unique way.'

West Linn Mayor Norm King added, 'I think this is a wonderful event - it's a great way for people in both cities to meet their neighbors and be closer to the river.'

For all of its frivolity, Porter pointed out that Eel Fest is rooted in the traditions of this land that go back beyond the arrival of Dr. John McLoughlin and the first settlers.

'The reason that this festival resonates as a genuine cultural event is that the Native Americans considered the eel to be one of their staple foods, which they harvested at the Willamette Falls,' he said. 'Even today, Native Americans take this very seriously, and they are concerned about the survival of the eels as well as the salmon.'

According to Porter, the pacific lamprey is in decline, although the reasons are not well understood.

'At future festivals, we'd like to have a wildlife biologist come out and discuss these issues,' he said.