Annual Punkin Chuckin’ event litters West Homer Elementary field with gourd carcasses

  • The remains of decimated pumpkins litters a field behind West Homer Elementary School following the annual Punkin Chuckin’ event Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Several carved pumpkins await their turn to be flung across a field by a catapult during West Homer Elemetnary Schools Punkin Chuckin’ fundraising event Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 at the school in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • A volunteer laods the golden pumpkin into a large home-made catapult to be launched during West Homer Elementary School’s annual Punkin Cuckin’ event Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 at the school in Homer, Alaska. The catapult, on its second year of use, was put under too much stress this year, and the event had to be stopped before all the pumpkins were thrown for fear of it breaking. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • A large catapult containing the golden pumpkin is released at the annual Punkin Chuckin’ event Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 at West Homer Elementary School in Homer, Alaska. If participants correctly guess which square of a grid created on the field behind the school the golden pumpkin will land in, they can win a prize. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Shattered remains of the coveted golden pumpkin rest in a field after the pumpkin was hurled from a catapult during West Homer Elementary School’s annual Punkin Chuckin’ fundraising event Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 at the school in Homer, Alaska. Participants get the chance to win a prize if they pick the correct square on a grid created on the field that the golden pumpkin lands on. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

You’ve heard the expression “raining cats and dogs,” but unless you’re familiar with the traditions of West Homer Elementary, you may have been confused if you saw myriad pumpkins sailing through the sky last week.

It was all due to the school’s annual Punkin Chuckin’ fundraising event, during which families let their carved creations and regular gourds fly into the field behind the school, for a small price, from catapults of various sizes. As the pumpkins crash land and splatter all over the field, participants can buy goodies while they guess where the prized golden pumpkin will land among the grid mapped out on the grass.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the pumpkins or the adult-sized catapult on Friday. It’s the same machine that was used for last year’s event, plus some modifications, said volunteer and builder Ole Olsgard, and the stress of tossing pumpkins both last year and this year started to weigh on the machinery. So much stress was being put on the catapult’s wood that the pumpkin chucking was stopped early for fear it might come apart, but not before its operators were able to launch about 100 “double shots,” in which a smaller pumpkin was set flying tucked inside a larger one, Olsgard said.

One reason for the stress on the machine was the lead-filled bucket that pulls the catapult’s arm down when it’s shot, which clocked in at about a ton, he said.

By the end of the day, some climbing rope on the machine had snapped and a metal hook being used to help pull the catapult arm (and the lead counterweight) back down to reset it had straightened out, according to Olsgard and Geoff Coble, one of the designers.

There was really no set design involved in creating the catapult, Coble said.

“It became this machine,” he said.

Ideally some aspects of the pumpkin launcher would be different, like the wooden arm, Coble said, but as it’s a community effort, it comes down to what’s available. This year’s arm is on the shorter side because that was the available piece of hemlock that was strong enough to do the job, he said.

“You could make a piano sound board out of that thing,” Coble said of the catapult’s arm.

Several adjustments and modifications were made between last year’s model and this years in order to improve the event, the volunteers said. Gussets were added for strength, Olsgard said, and builders increased the number of anchoring points connected the catapult and the trailer it rests on.

“We have to be efficient, so you have to get it down to every two minutes almost, which we did,” Coble said of the gourd launching. “But that required a modification that was, this year we have a hook. And one guy hooks the hook that was added to the bottom of the arm near the end when it’s straight up in the air (to a truck), in order to pull down the arm and cock it.”

So even though the fun had to stop early and the tossing of the golden pumpkin had to be moved up, pumpkins were being thrown across the field at a rapid pace for most of the event. They were being thrown far, too.

“Our furthest shot yesterday was over 200 feet,” Olsgard said.

In the culmination of the event, the person who picked the grid square that the golden pumpkin ultimately lands on wins a prize. As soon as it was loosed from the catapult, the cheers erupted and dozens of students charged across the grass to pinpoint its bearings.

They then set happily to work smashing its remains and those of the other shattered jack-o’-lanterns.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@homernews.com.

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