Bald Eagle

Punkin’ chunkin’ brings crowds to Sayers Lake, raises funds for Howard fire unit

Spectators look on as teams load their trebuchets during the 4th Annual Howard Volunteer Fire Company’s Punkin’ Chunkin’ at Bald Eagle State Park on Saturday.
Spectators look on as teams load their trebuchets during the 4th Annual Howard Volunteer Fire Company’s Punkin’ Chunkin’ at Bald Eagle State Park on Saturday. CDT photos

About 1,200 pounds of weights slid from the top of the Howard Volunteer Fire Company’s trebuchet that triggered the release of an arm that launched a 10-pound pumpkin into Sayers Lake on Saturday.

The pumpkin flew about 1,200 feet at the fire unit’s fourth annual Punkin’ Chunkin’ Fest.

Event founder and organizer George Demchak said that he spearheaded the event four years ago to help raise money for the fire company.

In its first year, the festival attracted about 9,000 people. It grew the second year to 15,000, and increased again to about 20,000 last year. This year, with the addition of more punkin’ chunkin’ devices, Demchak estimated that more than 20,000 people would be in attendance.

“We get a huge crowd,” he said. “People come from all over the country.”

The festival on Saturday included 100 craft vendors, 40 food vendors, three bands, hayrides and 13 chunkin’ contraptions powered by machines, catapults, trebuchets and an air cannon that can launch a pumpkin more than 4,000 feet.

The cannon was brought to the fest by a six-member team from Delaware that calls their cannon the Sky Buster Punkin’ Chunker.

Due to limitations at Bald Eagle State Park, however, the cannon was rigged to limit how far the pumpkins were launched.

Most of the time, the pumpkins were shot low enough to skip off the water like a rock.

“If we let them go full force, the pumpkin would fly right into town,” Demchek said. “We don’t want it to go through someone’s window.”

Demchak said other punkin’ chunkin’ teams came from as far away as North Carolina, Massachusetts and Colorado.

But the fire company’s trebuchet represented Centre County.

It was a device designed by volunteer firefighter Josh Collins, an engineer at Stahl Sheaffer Engineering.

He said that when the fire company started the event and didn’t have its own machine, he took it into his hands to create it himself.

After about 80 hours worth of design work, and another 100 hours worth of building, Collins and a group of engineers from Stahl Sheaffer had a wooden trebuchet that could launch a pumpkin as far as 2,500 feet.

Collins said it’s also featured each year in Delaware for the world championship punkin’ chunkin’ competition.

“We just like to go out there, have fun and let the people enjoy what we got,” Collins said.

Adrian Hamill drove three hours from New Jersey just to be a spectator.

Hamill said he’s competed in punkin’ chunkin’ competition for 14 years with his team called Team Chunky.

But when the world championships in Delaware were canceled this year, he took the time to check things out from the other side.

“It fun to see how the different teams work,” Hamill said. “But it can be dangerous. We’ve had a few close calls.”

In a strange turn of events, one man was transported by EMS to Mount Nittany Medical Center with a head injury after a metal arm of a launcher from Team High X fell and hit the man on the head.

Volunteers said that was the first ever reported injury at the fest.

“In Delaware, we’re required to wear hard hats,” said Jameson Merrill, who helped build the Howard Fire Company’s device. “Maybe we should look into doing the same here.”