One of the many Punkin Chunkin air cannons.

One of the many Punkin Chunkin air cannons. (Benjamin Hecht Photo)

Each season has its share of time-of-year-appropriate activities to be enjoyed by the masses. Winter has skiing and snowboarding, with spring comes the allure of gardening (or cleaning, if that's your bag), and come summertime, everyone heads to the beach. Normal, run-of-the-mill fall activities include hayrides, pumpkin-picking and consuming massive amounts of cider. Yawn. While I really do love all those things, they pale in comparison with the experience of the annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin in Bridgeville, Del.

"What is Punkin Chunkin?" you ask. Picture the length of a few football fields' worth of towering, man-made devices all hell-bent on hurling a pumpkin as far as possible, or at least farther than the next guy. Teams gather from far and wide, hoping their blood, sweat and the tears of countless pumpkins are enough to trick science into thinking pumpkins can fly. The machines vary in size, style and propulsion technique, including air cannons, torsion machines, trebuchets and catapults. Some of the machines are even human powered. It's a fascinating sight. It's also an unholy gathering of science geeks and "country folk."

I had the pleasure of experiencing this gravity-defying marvel at this year's competition, held Nov. 2-4. We spent the weekend camping next to a lake in Delaware, sitting by the fire and drinking Yuengling. On Saturday, we rose long before dawn to make the nearly 30 minute drive to Bridgeville, hoping for a good parking spot and an easy entry. Around 9 a.m., after a pit stop for coffee and possibly the best breakfast sandwich I've ever eaten, we finally parked the cars and wheeled our cooler of Yuengling into the fray.

The crowds were already pretty sizeable, only an hour into the competition that day. People of all stripes, some with children on their shoulders, others wearing ridiculous hats, and still others respectably dressed for the weather, gathered in the viewing area behind each machine as it got ready to fire. The crowd migrates down the line with each contestant as they load up and shoot that gourd into space, and we followed suit. The weather that day was overcast, chilly and windy, so hanging out in a crowd helped dull the wind's bite. And our "beer jackets" also helped.

The most impressive of the configurations is definitely the air cannon. But they're not the most enjoyable to watch, because they blast so fast and high that it's nearly impossible to see the pumpkin once it leaves the cannon. Half, if not most, of the anticipation while a machine is powering up and getting into position is getting ready to watch the pumpkin soar on its trajectory. Also, I found it nearly impossible not to scream every time a cannon fired, even though I was well aware it was coming. Those puppies are loud. I greatly enjoyed the trebuchets and torsion machines. The buildup before the launch was really exciting. The crowd would cheer and chant. Two horns would sound when the team was ready to fire, at which point everyone would get pretty quiet, and there was relative silence as we waited for each launch. Then when it finally released, a chorus of "WOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"s and "YEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAH!"s would ring out from all around us, hands in the air. It was quite exhilarating.

We were unfortunately only able to see part of Saturday's competition, and didn't get to see every machine fire at least once. The competition is spread out over three days, with each team getting one shot per day. (This year, the competition was canceled on Friday, Nov. 2, because of residual water on the field. We're blaming Sandy for that one.) The longest of those three shots goes down in the record books to determine the winner in each category.

In addition to the physical science portion of the event, there are a host of other activities going on as well. Live bands play throughout the day. There are cooking contests and a chili cook-off. Young ladies can compete in the Miss Punkin Chunkin Pageant. (Grown-ups get their chance in the Mr. and Mrs. Punkin Chunkin Pageant.) And of course there's the ability to walk around freely while drinking a beer. If you like fall weather, thousands of people, celebratory cheering and airborne pumpkins, consider making the trek to Delaware next year. It was honestly one of the most genuinely fun, exciting and rewarding experiences I can remember. Science is awesome.


See a video of our front row view of a launch here.


Punkin Chunkin coverage airs Thanksgiving night, Nov. 22, at 8 p.m. on the Science Channel.

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