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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pumpkin Paddle

Air Date: Week of

Hot off the line. Racers from left: Dan Bushnell, Tony Shirley, Joe Post, and Craig Fitzgerald.(Photo: Amy and Annette Whitehead-Pleaux)

After the county fair, the life of an Atlantic Giant Pumpkin doesn’t have to end in the compost pile. Dedicated fans have found that when hollowed out, these gourds make great boats. Let the races begin! Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn takes us to a Pumpkin Paddle.


YOUNG: Pumpkins are the most popular gourd of this festive fall season. You can carve ‘em, roast the seeds, make bread, and pie. But not all pumpkins are created equal.

This year a farmer in Rhode Island set the record for the heaviest pumpkin in the world. It weighed in at one thousand, five hundred two pounds. But after winning a weigh-off, what do you do with a giant pumpkin, but…turn it into a boat!

Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn went to the first annual Massachusetts Pumpkin Paddle in Rutland, and she brought back this story.


AHEARN: 8:30 AM. It’s a misty fall morning on Long Pond and at the edge of the town parking lot, over by the boat ramp, people are unloading a few pickup trucks.


AHEARN: Three men stand around sipping coffee. They look like they might be getting ready to go for an early morning boat ride, and I guess you could say they are if, by boat, you mean pumpkin.

(Photo: Amy and Annette Whitehead-Pleaux)

POST: That’s my baby right there.

AHEARN: In the back of Joe Post’s pickup sits a bulbous globule of gourd that would make a Hubbard squash quake on its vine.

POST: That’s the one you want to make the boat out of, right there. Six hundred pounds is what you can handle.

AHEARN: Joe’s talking about his Atlantic Giant Pumpkin. In the eastern part of this country, folks grow some of the biggest pumpkins in the world and hold competitions at state and county fairs.

Craig Fitzgerald founded the Massachusetts Pumpkin Paddle. He felt there had to be life after the county fair for Pegasus, his 400-pound, prize-winning pumpkin.

FITZGERALD: Once the weigh-offs are over, we realized that it would just go into the compost pile. There’s not much else to do with them. We decided we would paddle them, see how it does.

AHEARN: What are the qualities you would look for in a pumpkin that’s going to make a good boat?

FITZGERALD: If it were more elongated, more canoe-shaped, would be ideal, but anything between 500 and 800 pounds is an ideal weight, but mostly the shape is the most important thing.

POST: Every one is different. I had one that looked like a wagon wheel this year that was really strange looking. A lot of them get flat; they get ugly looking when they start gettin’ big. It ain’t a beauty pageant. It’s all a weigh-off, that’s what it is now.

AHEARN: Beauty pageant or not, on this day, only the mightiest of pumpkins will take to the water.


AHEARN: 10:30 AM. A crowd begins to gather on the shore. In the water float four giant pumpkins. They’ve hollowed out their innards to make seats for the paddlers. They look like round, unwieldy kayaks. The worst kayaks you could ever paddle.

I found Tony Shirley. He’s one of the day’s competitors, and asked him how he prepared for the race.

SHIRLEY: You have to be serious about it. I’ve been trying a bunch of different things. Found the biggest canoe I could get, and I got a good paddle and then I was practicing standing up in the canoe, paddling, for balance purposes. I don’t know, I was thinking about getting something like a bathtub, and maybe that would work, but I couldn’t really find any.

AHEARN: Tony’s young and fit. It’s his first pumpkin paddle and he takes the race very seriously.

SHIRLEY: I mean this is the Massachusetts Pumpkin Paddle, so I will be the state champ after this, hopefully. And then maybe next year, if I win two in a row, I’ll be undefeated, and then my wife will make up the orange robe and I’ll come out with, instead of boxing gloves, I’ll have pumpkins. Don’t get me wrong, I’m here for the fun, but I’m in it to win it.

[ANNOUNCER: Well, good afternoon again everybody, and thank you for coming out to the first annual Massachusetts Pumpkin Paddle! What a great crowd! What a great afternoon…]

AHEARN: 11:30 AM. There are about 400 people now crowding the shore. The race is about to begin.


AHEARN: The competitors: Craig Fitzgerald, the quiet and humble founder of the race. Joe Post, in his camouflage hip-wader wetsuit. Young Tony Shirley rarin’ to go after weeks of training, and Dan Bushnell, a local farmer who arrives late on the scene.

I’m invited to sit in the official race committee boat, which is, thankfully, not a pumpkin, but it is a front row seat for the action.

[ANNOUNCER: Are you ready? On your mark, get set, go!!!]


[ANNOUNCER: That is a blazing burst of speed that we see out here to begin this thing!” (laughs from crowd)]

Hot off the line. Racers from left: Dan Bushnell, Tony Shirley, Joe Post, and Craig Fitzgerald.(Photo: Amy and Annette Whitehead-Pleaux)

AHEARN: This race is getting off to a slow start. Pumpkin paddlers bob up and down, and they’re barely staying on course as they round the first buoy. But things get interesting as the paddlers round the second buoy and start to sprint for the finish line.

[ANNOUNCER: Big, big strokes for Dan now! He’s heading towards home!]

AHEARN: Just as Dan comes from behind to take the lead, he loses one of his competitors to the whim of a tippy gourd.

[ANNOUNCER: Oh, down goes Tony!! Down goes Tony!! He’s swimming back to his gourd.]

AHEARN: Well, Tony’s out of the race, but Dan’s about 10 yards from the finish line. Craig’s hot on Dan’s heels, and Joe is a distant third.

[ANNOUNCER: Come on, Craig, catch him!]

AHEARN: Suddenly, Joe and his pumpkin, Gourdzilla, start to teeter and take on water.

Gourd over! Tony Shirley capsizes as Dan Bushnell takes the lead, followed by Craig Fitzgerald.(Photo: Amy and Annette Whitehead-Pleaux)


[ANNOUNCER: Oh! Down goes Joe!]

AHEARN: [(Joe laughing] Joe’s in the water laughing as Dan crosses the finish line.

[ANNOUNCER: The winner of the first annual Massachusetts Pumpkin Paddle!]



AHEARN: After the award ceremony, I catch up with the sopping wet Tony. He’s already getting pumped for next year’s competition.

SHIRLEY: My neighbor’s gonna let me grow a pumpkin in his backyard so I’m scored on that. Maybe I’ll grow two, carve one out to practice in that. It’s hard to say, it’s hard to prepare for something like this. But there’s always next year.


AHEARN: There is indeed always next year.


AHEARN: For Living on Earth, I’m Ashley Ahearn in Rutland, Massachusetts.



First Massachusetts Pumpkin Paddle


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