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

GRAND FORKS -- Rick Swenson thought he'd only have to paddle 8 miles to set a world record for paddling a giant pumpkin Saturday morning, Oct. 15, as he set out from Grand Forks on his historic Red River voyage. Then he found out a few hours late...

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 thought he'd only have to paddle 8 miles to set a world record for paddling a giant pumpkin Saturday morning, Oct. 15, as he set out from Grand Forks on his historic Red River voyage.

Then he found out a few hours later while on the river that a paddler in Washington state had just paddled 15 miles.

No worries. Swenson had to paddle farther than that anyway.

Shortly before 4 p.m., he texted a photo of himself to friends and family striking up a victorious pose, paddles raised high and wearing his Carson Wentz Philadelphia Eagles jersey.

Sitting in a pumpkin.


He'd just passed the 15-mile mark, breaking the unofficial Guinness World Record for pumpkin paddling and was on track to reach his destination, Oslo, Minn., by about 9 p.m.

That was several hours faster than he'd predicted.

"I'm surprised it went this well," he said. "I had to break out the jersey."

Swenson, 35, of Fergus Falls, Minn., grows giant pumpkins and left at daybreak Saturday morning from the boat ramp below Riverside Dam on a 26-mile pumpkin excursion to Oslo.

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

The aspiring pumpkin paddler 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 record for the longest distance paddled in a pumpkin.

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

A support crew-two family members and three buddies-accompanied Swenson in two boats to lend moral support, cook burgers and brats and offer help in case something went wrong.


Swenson had hauled a 1,057-pound pumpkin to Grand Forks as a backup, but both pumpkin and paddler were up to the challenge Saturday.

Not everyone can say they grew their own boat.

Swenson initially thought it would take as long as 18 hours to reach Oslo but was able to maintain a pace of better than 2 mph.

"I've done a little bit of paddling in a kayak, but not a lot, and especially nothing like this," he said.

Sense of adventure

Pumpkin-paddling conditions Saturday morning were perfect, with a temperature in the mid-50s and a light westerly breeze. Swenson had to buck wind in places Saturday afternoon, but it didn't affect his progress; as dusk approached, the wind was subsiding.

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."


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 of more than 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.

Giant pumpkins are flat on the bottom, so Swenson turned the flat side up and carved out a small opening to sit. The pumpkin rode low in the water and looked like a giant bagel. Swenson also adorned the pumpkin with bright orange LED lights, adding some pomp to his departure.

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-squashing 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?' "

Setting a pumpkin-paddling record certainly qualifies as 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.

Now that he's unofficially beaten the record, Swenson said it will take several weeks for Guinness to confirm the title. He had to follow strict criteria that included a providing a GPS record, 2 minutes of video every hour and unaffiliated witnesses to observe both the start and finish of the trip.

Other than being "completely gassed out," Swenson said he felt great.

"I'm glad we did it," he said. "It's something goofy to do and have a fun time."

Whether it becomes an annual event, only time and the great pumpkin gods know for sure.

"I don't know," Swenson said. "Maybe I'll grow the pumpkin and let someone else paddle it."

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, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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