Western Mass. man paddles the Connecticut River in a 'very hokey' watercraft. (It's a pumpkin!)
There have been some big happenings on the Connecticut River this fall.
In October, a South Hadley resident became the first person to swim the entire 410-mile length of the Connecticut river.
And more recently, on a much shorter stretch of the Connecticut, David Rothstein – a sculptor and environmental lawyer – set off to beat the world record for distance paddled in a pumpkin.
I first met Rothstein on Day 3 of his attempt, when he was knee-deep in the river, trying to get the 700-pound pumpkin unstuck from the mud. He had a couple friends beside him, heaving, grunting, slipping in all directions.
As Rothstein counted off – “one, two, three…” – they pushed from below, and the hollowed-out pumpkin slid a few inches, then another few, until it was floating freely.
“Thank you everybody,” Rothstein said, shaking mud off his neoprene booties. “That was a good workout.”
Rothstein threw a leg over the pumpkin’s rim and climbed inside. He started paddling toward the center of the river as I followed in my canoe, one hand holding a paddle, the other holding my microphone boom. It was pretty awkward. I kept knocking into him.
“Just so you know, I have absolutely zero control,” Rothstein said at one point. “I cannot turn, except in circles.”
Yes, there is a pumpkin-padding world record
Rothstein’s mission was not only to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for pumpkin paddling but also to bring some extra attention to his beloved Connecticut River watershed. Dozens of people came out to cheer for the 55-year-old Florence resident. They stood along the riverbank and hollered from bridges.
He had launched his voyage on the morning of Saturday, November 4, starting miles up on the Deerfield River, a tributary to the Connecticut.
“I had to add the Deerfield to get the mileage,” Rothstein said, “and it's really shallow in places, so there was a big concern of like, is the water high enough to make it through?”
It would be difficult to overstate just how janky Rothstein’s watercraft actually appeared, but that wasn’t always the case. In October, the orange behemoth, grown by Pete Thayer in Blandford, won second place at the Big E in West Springfield. The pumpkin was a beauty, weighing 1,000 pounds off the vine.
But that was back when it was just a pumpkin and not also a boat. The walls of the squash were so thick Rothstein needed to carve it with a chainsaw.
As Rothstein attempted to steer, the vessel bobbed relentlessly in the current. Rothstein needed to bail gallons of water from around his feet every 10 minutes.
Michael Hart, a retiree from Greenfield, came out that first day to watch the launch. He was dubious about Rothstein’s chances of achieving the world record.
“My opinion watching him depart was that he wasn't going to make it to the Connecticut River,” Hart said. “I was not a believer at all.”
Bailing water to stay afloat
Rothstein hit several rapids on the Deerfield. At one point, the pumpkin filled with water, and it took him and several friends — using modified gallon milk jugs as scoops — a full hour to bail it out.
Rothstein’s phone was waterlogged, and he was waterlogged, but he kept floating and made it into the Connecticut River.
Two days later, Rothstein faced a different set of navigational challenges on the wider river. Not only were there no more rapids; sometimes there was no current at all.
At one point, he called across the water to his friend John Frey, who was sitting comfortable and dry in a kayak.
“I feel like I'm caught in a place where I'm not making any forward progress.” Rothstein told him. “Like, I don't know if the river’s flowing funny?”
Frey is the inspector of weights and measures for the city of Northampton. On that day, he was also guardian, map-reader and snack-hauler, a job that above all takes patience: Frey’s kayak could travel 10 times faster than the pumpkin if he wanted it to.
Frey has known Rothstein for almost 20 years and has been present for some of the other nutty things Rothstein has attempted over the years. One winter Rothstein built an igloo in his yard and turned it into a bar. And there was the time he ate a dozen donuts in Frey’s living room.
“I think his big mistake was washing them down with chocolate milk,” Frey said, cracking up at the memory. “He was writhing in pain for hours.”
'Lifeblood of our community'
As Rothstein floated past the levee in Hadley, two women out for a walk with their dogs peered down at Rothstein’s boat, perplexed. One of them was Jennifer Depiero.
“There's something very hokey, very Mark Twain about it,” she called down from above.
A while later, Rothstein belted out the chorus of Bill Staines 1978 song, “River.”
River take me along in your sunshine
Sing me your song ever moving…
The Guinness world record for floating a continuous course in a pumpkin is 37.5 miles. This past summer, a new record of close to 39 miles was set by a man on the Missouri River, although it takes a few months for Guinness to process a new claim, so that record remains unofficial.
Rothstein needed at least 40 miles to beat the record, but I got the feeling he could take it or leave it. After all, he said, he was doing this for the river, concerned about run-off from industry, about farmers struggling after the June floods.
“I don't think I quite understood the breadth of the history of farming in the valley,” Rothstein said, “and the extent to which the lands along the Connecticut — I know they're fertile soil — but to which they're still being farmed. [They’re] the lifeblood of our community.”
It was midday by the time Rothstein floated under the Coolidge Bridge in Northampton, the pumpkin heavier and more water-logged by the hour. That’s where I left him, wishing him a strong current.
'It looks like a little orange speck'
Later that evening, I joined a crowd of friends and enthusiasts gathered on the rocks along the river at the Dinosaur Footprints in Holyoke. One of them could just see him coming.
“It looks like a little orange speck floating along,” she said, “and you can see a little flashing with the herky-jerky paddles.”
We watched for a while, at least 30 of us, the air coming off the river getting cooler by the minute. And then Rothstein floated on in, paddling furiously, looking gallant and absurd as he coaxed his unruly pumpkin toward the shore.
We let loose a great cheer.
Rothstein climbed out of the pumpkin, slipped on a rock, and took a full dunk in the cold Connecticut.
Minutes later, Rothstein and his support team conferred, doing a quick addition of miles from each day of the journey.
“It's officially unofficial,” Rothstein hollered.
“How many miles?” asked an onlooker.
“Just a little over 40.”
Rothstein won’t know for a few months whether he’s actually made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. If he has, he said, he hopes another pumpkin paddler will have a great time beating his record before too long.