Duane Hansen wasn’t exactly nervous when he climbed into his carved-out mega-pumpkin for a wobbly ride down the Missouri River, but a few questions swirled through his mind.
Would the gourd-turned-boat stay afloat? Would it tip? Could it handle the river’s powerful, sometimes-choppy current once he pushed off from the dock on his quest to set a new world record?
“I’d been thinking about this for years, and I didn’t think it would be really that hard to do,” Hansen said. “It was way harder than I expected.”
The next 12 hours would present plenty of challenges and a lot of joy for the 60-year-old, a yard equipment operator who pushes coal at OPPD’s Nebraska City Station. But as he floated away from the dock in Bellevue, sitting on a foam cooler inside his 864-pound pumpkin, his son Colton puttered behind him in a rescue boat and wondered just how far they would get.
“When we got to the river, it was pretty nerve wracking,” Colton Hansen recalled. “After a few miles, we could tell it was going to be a long day.”
The idea came to Duane Hansen about five years ago at a pumpkin-growing seminar in Portland, Oregon. At one display table, he met a woman who had previously set a Guinness World Record for the longest river journey in a pumpkin. The most recent record was 25.5 miles.
His first thought: “Wow. That’s what I want to do.”
Duane Hansen had started growing mega-pumpkins years earlier at his home just north of Syracuse. The hobby requires special seeds that he buys online and plants in his greenhouse in March, before the weather warms. He hand-pollinates his pumpkins shortly after they flower, then moves them outdoors into his garden to keep them growing unabated.
Growing plus-sized produce came naturally to Hansen, who started planting as a farm kid in southeast Nebraska. Morgan Buchholz, his daughter and Colton’s twin, said her dad regularly wins accolades for his large tomatoes, squash and peppers at the Otoe County Fair.
He’s also a bit of an adventure-seeker who spent several years skydiving, a hobby he says he might resume when he retires, Buchholz said. Hansen has an eclectic mix of passions and talents, having built his own swimming pool and set up two geothermal greenhouses to cultivate his many plants.
“It’s just part of his DNA,” said Buchholz, an OPPD change management and communications analyst.
Colton Hansen, an OPPD line technician, awoke at 4:20 a.m. on Saturday and drove to his father’s house. Slowly, carefully, they strapped the Atlantic pumpkin – nicknamed Berta – to a mattress on a truck bed and made their way to the launch point in Bellevue.
They chatted excitedly on the way, running through their plans and discussing how cool it would be to break a world record. Duane Hansen had already test-floated the gourd to ensure the plan was doable, then cut it open and filled two five-gallon buckets with pumpkin guts to clear space for himself.
The sky was slightly overcast when they arrived, the weather calm and cool. Several witnesses stood nearby, as required to confirm the record. Duane Hansen eased the pumpkin into the water, stepped inside and quickly realized he had a challenge on his hands.
“It was like sitting in a cork,” he said. “The pumpkin is super tippy, and you’ve really got to pay attention. You move just a little bit, and that pumpkin moves a lot.”
He paddled out slowly with his wife, Allyson, his sister, Yvonne, and Colton riding in the rescue boat about 50 feet away.
For the next several hours, they navigated the winding river south. Other boats passed, churning a wake that splashed water into his pumpkin. At one point, he got stuck on a sandbar. Then he struck a rock. The rescue boat team provided crucial support, handing him sandwiches and videotaping him to document the journey for Guinness World Records, which will likely take four to six weeks to confirm the record.
Everyone celebrated when he hit the 25.5-mile mark, but decided to keep going. The goal: the Riverview Marina in Nebraska City, 38 miles from where they started.
They forged onward, through rising summer heat and sporadic rain that cooled them. As they approached Nebraska City, Duane Hansen was surprised to see a large crowd cheering him. Friends and family gathered at the marina.
Friends who greeted him at the dock were both thrilled and unsurprised at the feat. Les Barrett, a longtime friend and working crew leader for OPPD, watched in amusement with his family as Duane Hansen paddled ashore.
“I’ve always been amazed by some of the stuff that comes out of his head,” Barrett said. “Duane’s a heck of a nice guy, and I’d do anything for him. But he gets some strange ideas sometimes.”
Buchholz, who helped her father apply for the world record title, said the journey was a reminder of the lesson her father used to impart on her and Colton, her twin brother.
“Dad has always done everything he wanted to do,” she said. “When we were kids, he always said, ‘”Can’t” never did anything.’”
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