Why Is This Panda Rowing a Giant Pumpkin?

Let’s start today’s Now I Know with an apology: I should have shared this story two weeks ago because if I had, you could have been there to see the glory that is the panda in a giant pumpkin, as seen above. So, my apologies. The good news is that you have almost a whole year to plan for the next time something like this could happen.

The panda pictured above isn’t a panda — it’s a person in a panda costume, or at least, the head part of a panda costume. But, to be clear, he is actually in a giant pumpkin, not a boat. He’s participating in the West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta, an annual festival in the Portland suburb of Tualatin, Oregon. 

The event is basically what it sounds like: a boat race featuring a bunch of people guiding hollowed-out giant pumpkins around the water. The regatta takes place in mid-October every year (with a Covid-19 pause in 2020 and 2021). As a Portland activities website explains, “event is broken into four different pumpkin races that last 15-20 minutes. The first race is for the pumpkin growers. The second is for sponsors and special guests. The next race is usually the Tualatin Police versus the public or the local fire and rescue team.” And then, finally, pumpkin boat racers from around the world take to the lake. Per that Portland website, “in early September, the event organizers [ . . . ] open a special lottery for the public. Those selected will get to participate in the final race of the day.”

Participants in the races often dress up in costume — it’s almost Halloween, after all! — as seen below. And as also seen below, the races gather a big crowd. In some years, as many as 20,000 spectators show up to watch the giant gourds and to participate in the dozen or so activities on the lake’s shore. For the non-boaters, there are costume contests, a 5k run, lots of booths and food, and of course, a giant pumpkin weighing contest.

As for the races themselves, pumpkin boaters set sail (or, more accurately, take oars) toward baskets positioned throughout the lake; each boater has to retrieve a ball from each basket, and the first pumpkin captain to obtain a ball from each is the winner. It’s a physically grueling task, at least according to Larry Nelson, the runner-up in one of the 2015 races. Per Oregon Live, he “looked to be the likely winner at the beginning of the race, far ahead of his competitors. But then he started going off to the side,” allowing another competitor to pass him. As Nelson told the press, moving the half-ton pumpkins through the lake is “brutal” and “just exhausting” — “pumpkins,” as you could have guessed, “aren’t very aerodynamic in the water.”

And it’s probably even harder with a big panda head on, but unfortunately, the panda pumpkineer didn’t provide a comment (or at least not one I could find).

If you want to participate this year, again, sorry, it happened already. But next year? Visit the official website of Tualatin, here, sometime next September. And if you’re lucky enough to win entry into that fourth race, get yourself a giant panda costume or something — and then, send me a picture. 

Bonus fact: The Red River of the North, is a waterway that forms much of the border between North Dakota and Minnesota on its way up to Canada. And it’s also home to the longest-ever pumpkin boat journey in recorded history. In 2016, a Minnesotan named Rick Swenson entered the Red River in Grand Forks, North Dakota in his hollowed-out pumpkin and rowed north for 26 miles, ending up in Oslo, Minnesota about 13 hours later. (According to Google Maps, he could have walked the same distance in about half the time.) In doing so, Swenson set a new record for the longest journey in a giant pumpkin boat — but despite how niche of an achievement that is, it wasn’t a given. As he told All That’s Interesting, “We got about seven and a half miles in, thinking [the world record] was eight [miles] and we got a text that somebody had broken it at 15 a week [earlier]. And that was completely demoralizing. I’ve done a little bit of paddling in a kayak, but not a lot, and especially nothing like this.” Swenson got over being completely demoralized and continued on his quest, crushing the week-old record.

Update: The record has been broken! The longest pumpkin boat row goes to Duane Hansen of Nebraska, whose 12-hour journey down the Missouri River totaled 38 miles.

From the Archives: The Great Pumpkin Float: The original giant pumpkin regatta.