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Have you ever seen pumpkins used as canoes? Each October at the Elk Grove (California) Giant Pumpkin Festival, gourds weighing at least 500 pounds are hollowed and carved into boats for the Giant Pumpkin Regatta.
For 27 years, the Cosumnes Community Services District has held the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival during the first weekend in October. The park and recreation department first created the harvest celebration around an international giant pumpkin contest. The festival grew larger each year, and so did the pumpkins! The most recent festivals have attracted more than 70,000 visitors and numerous one-ton pumpkins. The heaviest pumpkin weighed a whopping 2,138 pounds!
Back in 2006, festival organizers were looking for ways to bring more pumpkin attractions to the growing event. They learned of a pumpkin regatta held in Nova Scotia, Canada, and decided to recreate the event in Elk Grove since the festival takes place around a small lake.
While the three heftiest pumpkins from Saturday’s Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off remain on display throughout the weekend, the other giant gourds (weighing between 500 to 1,000 pounds) may be entered into the regatta on Sunday. A few loyal contestants even grow pumpkins specifically for the regatta.
Every minute counts as the junior shipwrights craft their vessels, just hours before the event. Pumpkins are buoyant, but it’s impossible to guess which part of the pumpkin will float above the water. So, with the help of a forklift, skippers place their gourd in the water, mark the water line with a permanent marker and then remove the pumpkin from the water and begin preparing it with reciprocating saws, hand saws and shovels. They’ll climb into the carved pumpkin while it is on land to make sure there’s enough room for their legs and torso.
And they’re off! Competitors must paddle across the lake — about the length of a football field — pick up a flag at the dock, and paddle back. The most important rule is they must start and end the race inside their pumpkin — it is more of a balancing act than a speed race.
The giant pumpkin shells are surprisingly seaworthy but difficult to steer. Some pumpkins veer off course and end up soaking their skipper in the lake’s fountain. Some pumpkins tip over and force their skipper to swim back with the boat in tow. There are no guarantees when you’re relying on a gigantic fruit to transport you across a lake — but it is always entertaining.
Thousands of onlookers gather around the shores of the lake to cheer on the contestants. Will they sink or swim? Everyone is eager to see who will paddle in for bragging rights, cash prizes and the title of Pumpkin Regatta Champion. This 14-year tradition in Elk Grove is a must-see!
Learn more about the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival and become a friend of the festival on social media at @ElkGroveGPF.
Jenna Brinkman, Public Affairs Manager, Cosumnes Community Services District