In a city renowned for its Halloween celebrations, the UW-Madison's annual Giant Pumpkin Regatta has emerged as one of the most inspired hoots of the season -- albeit one that is not without its haunted hazards. Now marking its fourth year, this contest of the gourds is scheduled to hit Lake Mendota off the Memorial Union Terrace this Saturday, October 4.
Starting at noon, students paddling enormous hollowed-out pumpkins -- buoyed by tractor-tire inner-tubes -- will face off in a series of races between the piers at the Terrace. The event is organized by UW horticulture professors Jim Nienhuis and Irwin Goldman in cooperation with the Hoofer Sailing Club, a handy group to have around considering what happened during the event's inaugural year.
The original Giant Pumpkin Regatta in 2005 excited enough interest to lure scores of onlookers to the Hoofer Boathouse and Memorial Union Terrace. It was one of those spectacular October afternoons -- crisp enough to make sweaters and light jackets advisable, but sunny enough to savor the amusement at hand. As they navigated the course, race participants struggled to keep their pumpkin vessels on the straightest and truest track. There was laughter, giggling, great hilarity and the occasional pumpkin-helmet sighting. Spectators lined the shoreline, crowded the boathouse rooftop. Several dozen onlookers -- many with cameras -- took to the dock in front of the boathouse, finding great perspectives along its entire length.
I was among those who found their way out to the end of the dock, which afforded a great panoramic view of the proceedings. But at some point -- looking back toward shore, noticing that more and more people were crowding onto the dock and finding this worrisome -- I decided to return to solid ground.
'Scuse me... Pardon me...
After a few steps, I looked up to see lots of people's heads remaining between me and my destination. Then, in an instant, a significant number of them vanished. It was one of those what-the-hell moments that take a few seconds to register: many heads a few seconds ago, now a good number fewer. Then, a chorus of gasps, and splashing in the water. So many people had crowded out onto the dock that the load-bearing capacity of the framework under one of the pier's sections had been overwhelmed and collapsed. Oops.
Amid exclamations of alarm, Hoofer Sailing Club members scrambled to launch their nearest boats on a rescue mission to help people (some with cameras) out of the water and shepherd those of us stranded out beyond the collapsed section back to shore. Mission accomplished, the regatta resumed, and the incident began its maturation into one of those shared memories of survived catastrophe.
So if you're thinking about attending this year's spectacle, you might want to stay off any structures that might be compromised by overcrowding. But the Giant Pumpkin Regatta itself once again promises to be quite a hoot.