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Omaha Magazine

Paddling a Pumpkin to a World Record: An Otoe County Man Reigns Supreme in the Guinness Book

May 23, 2023 03:33PM ● By Carol Nigrelli
Duane Hansen Adventure Omaha Magazine June 2023

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

"Hey! You’re that pumpkin guy!”

Duane Hansen can’t venture outside his Syracuse, Nebraska, home without somebody recognizing him, eager to engage in conversation about his “pumpkin ride down the Missouri.”

This improbable pumpkin tale occurred last year on August 27th, the morning after his 60th birthday. Hansen climbed into his homegrown, hollowed-out, 847-pound pumpkin at a public dock in the city of Bellevue and sat on a cooler filled with beer. For the next 11 hours, he paddled his way south down the ‘mighty Mo,’ determined to break the previous Guinness World Record of 25 miles set in 2016 by a man who navigated a pumpkin down the Red River between Minnesota and North Dakota.

With his sister Yvonne, who flew in from San Diego for the event, his wife Allyson, and 30-year-old twins Colton Hansen and Morgan Hansen Buchholz riding in a boat behind him to chronicle and certify the journey, Hansen broke the record just before three that afternoon and continued to squash it all the way down to Nebraska City. He had paddled for a total of 37.5 miles, emerging from the pumpkin soaked, sore, and victorious. 

“My knees ached for three days,” Hansen recalled. “I was crouching low in that pumpkin for over 11 hours and couldn’t move.”

The lingering effect of fatigued limbs paled in comparison to what happened next. 

The morning after Hansen’s river adventure, he woke up to his neighbor banging on his door. Hansen remembers the ensuing conversation vividly:

“My neighbor said, ‘Hey, you want to do a Zoom interview in London?’ I said, ‘How did they even know how to get a hold of you?’ And he said, ‘Well, evidently they found out I was your neighbor, and you don’t answer your phone!’” 

Hansen continued, “Well, all right, but I don’t know how to do Zoom. And he said, ‘That’s OK. I’ll do it for you.’”

And so it began—days and days of fielding phone calls, giving interviews, and learning how to navigate Zoom. 

“It was crazy,”  Hansen said. “Absolutely crazy.” 

His wife, Allyson, added, “There were people here all the time just wanting to look at him.” 

Credit the power of the instant information age. Facebook posts from fascinated onlookers who lined the riverbank from Bellevue to Nebraska City, coupled with local media coverage, lit a media firestorm that burned from Florida to Staten Island, from Boise to Bangor, then exploded worldwide. Hansen’s record-breaking ride appeared in London’s biggest newspapers, the Economic Times of India, on the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) and even netted a lengthy interview on a Canadian talk show. The Internet went berserk, as did YouTube. Even the woman who answered the phone at a seed catalog company recognized his name. 

“Oh, I can’t believe I’m talking to the person who went down the Missouri in a pumpkin,” she gushed to Hansen. 

Hansen’s coworkers at the Omaha Public Power District plant in Nebraska City, where Hansen operates a 75-ton coal pusher, had to laugh whenever there was a 10-minute lull in the wheel dozer’s output. They knew Hansen was in the cab, giving another phone interview. 

What was the catalyst for this pumpkin odyssey?

“Allyson and I went to a giant pumpkin-growing seminar in Oregon a few years ago and that’s where I first heard about floating a pumpkin down a river,” Hansen said. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s cool. I’m going to do that someday.’”

“Someday” took over five years. The master gardener, whose Syracuse property consists of rolling hills and several greenhouses where he also cultivates lemons, limes, and tomatoes, tried time and again to grow a pumpkin big enough to ship him down the Missouri. He knew it would have to be at least 800 pounds. 

His determination paid off. Last summer, one seed he had planted in early April had grown into the biggest pumpkin of his life—an ‘Atlantic Giant’ variant. With the pumpkin growing at a rate of 15 pounds per day, Hansen cut the vine in early August at 847 pounds. His daughter, Morgan, then scrambled to get the Guinness World Record application approved. 

Most people thought Hansen was out of his gourd attempting such a risky voyage. But he wasn’t motivted by the accolades of breaking a world record as much as he welcomed the challenge of growing a personal-best pumpkin. For Hansen, the passion for cultivating vining crops began at an early age. 

“My grandfather’s sisters grew pumpkins and gourds and watermelons in their Papillion garden, and I thought they were so beautiful,” he reflected. “I guess there was just something inside of me. I had to grow them, too.”

Hansen’s initial reaction after his ride was, “Never again!” And who could blame him? Danger lurked for 11 hours: hidden rocks, sandbars, and the wake from ‘lookie-loos’ in passing boats posed a constant tipping threat considering less than a foot of pumpkin appeared above the surface. 

“I never could stand up to get a beer,” Hansen laughed. “I had to hold on for dear life.”

But time brings a new perspective. Hansen’s goal now is to grow a pumpkin that weighs a ton—big enough to fit two people. Why? 

“Well, Morgan says two people have never gone down a river in a pumpkin, so…” Stay tuned. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
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