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Man sets out to claim world pumpkin paddling record on the Red River

GRAND FORKS - Rick Swenson admits he's not an accomplished paddler.A canoe trip and some kayaking, and that's about it.The sailing-er, paddling-hasn't always been smooth."My wife and I tried canoeing about five years ago," Swenson said. "We had t...

Rick Swenson of Fergus Falls, Minn., paddles down the Red River in a giant pumpkin Saturday morning as he attempts to set the Guinness World Record for longest distance paddled in a pumpkin. Swenson planned to paddle to Oslo, Minn., a distance of about 26 river miles, which would more than triple the current pumpkin-paddling record. (Brad Dokken photo)
Rick Swenson of Fergus Falls, Minn., paddles down the Red River in a giant pumpkin Saturday morning as he attempts to set the Guinness World Record for longest distance paddled in a pumpkin. Swenson planned to paddle to Oslo, Minn., a distance of about 26 river miles, which would more than triple the current pumpkin-paddling record. (Brad Dokken photo)

GRAND FORKS - Rick Swenson admits he's not an accomplished paddler.

A canoe trip and some kayaking, and that's about it.

The sailing-er, paddling-hasn't always been smooth.

"My wife and I tried canoeing about five years ago," Swenson said. "We had to paddle across a lake about 3 miles, and it was a smoking northwest wind. We had to go straight into the wind."

By the time they made it across the lake, he joked, they were about ready to use the canoe paddles on each other.

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A sense of humor sprinkled with a sense of adventure inspired Swenson Saturday morning, Oct. 15, as he set off from the boat ramp below Riverside Dam in Grand Forks on a 26-mile paddling excursion to Oslo, Minn.

In a pumpkin.

Now that's something you don't see every day.

Swenson, 35, of Fergus Falls, Minn., drew a crowd of about 25 friends, family and curious onlookers as he launched his 1,086-pound giant squash in an attempt to set a Guinness World Record for the longest distance paddled in a pumpkin.

Two family members and three buddies accompanied Swenson in two boats to lend support in case something went wrong.

The current record is 8 miles.

"I'll never get an Olympic medal," he said. "I might as well try to get a Guinness record."

Besides, not everyone can say they grew their own boat. Just in case something went wrong, he brought a smaller 1,057-pound pumpkin along as a backup.

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"I've done a little bit of paddling in a kayak, but not a lot, and especially nothing like this," he said. "It's been all talk until now; now, we've got to have some action."

Swenson said he wasn't sure how long his epic paddling attempt would take but figured it could take up to 18 hours.

There were plenty of unknowns.

"Does a pumpkin soak up water in 18 hours? I have no idea," Swenson said. "I don't know what to expect. We'll see what happens."

Giant pumpkins are flat on the bottom, so Swenson turned the flat side up and carved out a small opening to sit. The pumpkin rides low in the water and looks like a giant bagel. Swenson also adorned the pumpkin with bright orange LED lights, giving it the appearance of a UFO:

An unidentified floating object.

Surprisingly seaworthy

Appearances aside, the gargantuan gourd seemed surprisingly seaworthy.

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"It's heavy," Swenson said. "It's 1,000 pounds, so there's a little bit of inertia there once you get going, but it's pretty stable."

He said the pumpkin handles like an inner tube.

"If you push too hard, you're going to swim in circles," he said.

Pumpkin-paddling conditions Saturday morning were perfect, with a temperature in the mid-50s and a light westerly breeze. The Red River's current was conducive to pumpkin travel, apparently, and Swenson was clipping along at about 2 mph.

He clearly was having fun, which came as no surprise to his wife, Erin Swenson.

"To be honest, nothing really surprises me with Rick," she said. "He just kind of has a sense of adventure."

His mom, Coreen Swenson of Fergus Falls, said she thought her son should have worn his gag snowmobile helmet that's adorned with deer antlers.
"This is right up there with his schemes," she said.

Swenson, who has been raising giant pumpkins for several years, started growing his pumpkin boat in March. Bred for bigness, the Howard Dill's Atlantic Giant variety can reach weights in excess of 2,000 pounds.

For the past five years, he has carved gargantuan jack-o-lanterns for a Halloween event at the Chahinkapa Zoo in Wahpeton, N.D.

"It's been fun," Swenson said.

One-upping a friend

Swenson said the inspiration for his historic pumpkin-paddling voyage came after a friend who grows the giant squash cut an opening in a pumpkin and had both grandparents stand inside.

"I always thought that was really cool," he said.

The clincher came when Charlie Bernstrom, a friend from Lancaster, Minn., who also grows giant pumpkins, started an annual spectacle of dropping a giant pumpkin on a car.

A video of last year's pumpkin-smashing spectacle went viral, Swenson said.

"We've always been good friends, but we go back and forth a bit," Swenson said. "I sat down last spring and thought, 'How am I going to one-up him?' "

Being a record-setting pumpkin paddler would be a good start.

Swenson said he contacted the people at Guinness in April and finally heard back in August that his pumpkin-paddling quest had been accepted.

"It was kind of like getting a college acceptance letter," he said.

Up until a couple of months ago, Swenson only would have needed to beat 3 miles to break the record. Then a pumpkin paddler from Pennsylvania paddled 8 miles.

"I'm hoping to beat that," he said. "Anything after that is gravy, I guess."

Related Topics: RED RIVERFERGUS FALLSOSLO
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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