No birds, no planes… 

Pumpkins fill the sky at the fifth annual Punkin’ Chunkin’

Well, they don’t make trebuchets the way they used to. At the fifth annual Punkin’ Chunkin’ last Saturday, held for the third year on Paul Hanson’s farm out Butler Creek Road, Dave Golden says that he and his medieval-siege-engine-replica-building partner Dennis Vander Meer built their Silver Dollar-sponsored trebuchet, “Big Iron,” out of eight-inch steel I-beams.

“The first year we built one out of wood, out of logs, because it’s the old-style way,” says Golden, wearing a jester’s red, white and blue hat and Harley Davidson jean jacket. “But it proved to be not as good as a trebuchet as we wanted it.”

This year—Dave Golden’s fourth Punkin’ Chunkin’—Big Iron goes up against just one other competitor in the trebuchet category, Blackfoot Communications’ “Fling Thing III,” manned by team captain Bob Moore and Noel Larrivee. Only two air cannons show up for the competition as well (which, in case the nature of the event isn’t self-evident by name, is to see which contraption in each category can propel a pumpkin the farthest), but hundreds of bystanders line Hanson’s field nevertheless. They pay $5 per carload to witness the spectacle; all proceeds go to Missoula’s Mismo Gymnastics cheerleaders, says event organizer Tim Ibey.

“This is the first year that only two trebuchets [came out],” says Golden, straightening his T-shirt—a 2002 Punkin’ Chunkin’ original—so it can be read clearly. “Before, the Boy Scouts were in this, and some other ones.”

It’s fair to say that more than just the competitors have changed in the trebuchet landscape over the years: A caption accompanying a 1445 sketch in Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey’s 1907 book The Projectile Throwing Engines of the Ancients reads, “Casting a dead horse into a besieged town by means of a trebuchet.” Out at Hanson’s farm, the only projectiles being launched are pumpkins, bowling balls and 15-pound wads of candy grapeshot for children to retrieve from the muddy grass. Well away from any buildings, the ranch replaced the original Punkin’ Chunkin’ site at Fort Missoula two years ago when airborne gourds started sailing distances sufficient to endanger unwitting targets. The only target in sight at Hanson’s is an old van placed about 400 feet out from the contraptions. On the van’s side is a crudely painted bull’s-eye, which, even after the cannons have blasted three frozen pumpkins clear through the van’s side, remains partially visible.

The trebuchet competition is over by 11 a.m. and Fling Thing III proves victorious, with a pumpkin-launch of 430 feet to Big Iron’s 358. The prize, says Golden, is something like $100, a trophy and bragging rights. The two teams will go head-to-head launching bowling balls in a little while, but for now the crowd turns its attention to the air cannons.

The cannons are elephants next to the trebuchets. If there were even a spot of sun hanging over Hanson’s ranch, Big Iron and Fling Thing III would be swallowed by the shadows of “Gourdzilla” and “Gourds In Space.”

“Not the best weather for a Punkin’ Chunkin’,” booms Z-100 deejay Bill Williams from his bird’s-eye-view atop a scissor lift. “But then again, what is?”

Best not to ask too many big questions at the Punkin’ Chunkin’—though a cold afternoon spent watching so many people wait in anticipation for a pumpkin to sail thousands of feet through the air does beg the inevitable question: why? Partly, at least, it’s got to be the sheer upside-down-roller-coaster giddiness that overcomes spectators at the sight of a less-than-aerodynamic fruit disappearing like a speck of dust into the clouds.

But to seasoned Punkin’ Chunkin’ spectators, it’s about more than being reduced to your 5-year-old self for the length of one pumpkin chunk. Sort of:

“You get some guys who are this serious about their toys,” says attendee Scott Johnson, pointing to the Gourds In Space air cannon, “and that’s a pretty serious toy right there. You can’t really fire it up on a Sunday afternoon in the back yard.”

Five-time air cannon competitor Dean Meuchel, donning a Hooters T-shirt, says this event is about “guys with too much money and too much time.” Meuchel is with the Bitterroot Welding-sponsored air cannon Gourdzilla, which sports a flame-painted tank and a blue cannon with red stars.

Meuchel takes the time to explain air cannon basics: Air compressors pump air into tanks on either side of the cannon to about 130-140 pounds of pressure. A butterfly valve holds the air in the tanks while team members shove a pumpkin down the barrel with a long rod, sometimes using a side door at the base of the cannon to load the pumpkin at the end. Then they raise the cannons to about 38 degrees from the horizontal and let the air in the tanks go. You have to use frozen pumpkins, Meuchel confirms, or else the projectile will disintegrate upon leaving the barrel.

Asked what else he and Bitterroot Welding owner Bob Atkinson have launched out of their cannon over the years, Meuchel says, “We shot a frozen turkey 1,700 feet once, about three years ago.” And at a Punkin’ Chunkin’ a few years back: “A barrel full of red, white and blue crepe paper back when we had just started bombing Afghanistan and everybody was feeling patriotic.”

Gourdzilla misfires early in the competition on Saturday, plopping the pumpkin just a few hundred feet from the cannon. Over the loudspeaker, Williams booms something you don’t hear every day:

“You guys reload. You lost to the trebuchets.” Gourdzilla’s sole competitor, Gourds In Space, was built in part by Scott Kuehn, who wishes there were a few more air cannons this year. The coverall-clad Kuehn is, according to his wife Joan, an air cannon “connoisseur.”

“The only rules in the air cannon,” he says, “is you’ve got to have compressed air, an eight-to-10 pound pumpkin, and then as far as you can throw them.”

“He studies videos from the East Coast of the guys who are out a little farther than him and analyzes exactly how to [launch] the pumpkins every year,” adds his wife.

Kuehn says the Punkin’ Chunkin’ world championship is held in Delaware every year, and that the world record is about 4,500 feet. “This is just sort of a small, local [thing],” explains Kuehn of the Missoula event, “but we’re getting there. We’re in the 3,500 feet [range]. We have about 1,900 gallons of air. We pump it through between 100 and 140 pounds—”

Over the loud speaker, the news comes in that Gourds In Space’s latest shot has launched the pumpkin 3,649 feet, their greatest distance of the day. Kuehn gives a modest smile.

Asked what the trickiest factor in punkin’ chunkin’ is, he says, “What the wind does. Each pumpkin’s a little different. Some are oblong. Some are round. So some get perfect trajectory, and others will go right, left, and will lose some distance.”

Does Kuehn choose his own pumpkins? “Oh, yeah,” he says.

“He tried to grow them in the back yard in a pumpkin patch!” exclaims Joan. She adds that Gourds In Space was built in tribute to one of Kuehn’s best friends, Garrett Grothen, who was killed in an avalanche on Sheep Mountain a few years ago. Grothen and Kuehn used to enter Punkin’ Chunkin’ together; now the side of Gourds In Space reads, “For Garrett.”

“They’re fun-loving people,” Joan Kuehn says of her husband’s team. And while that may be so, these guys aren’t losing their competitive edge any time soon. Says Kuehn of the world championships in Delaware, “It’s a long ways, but some day.”

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