Outside Online Archives

Outside magazine, October 1996

By Patrick Clinton

What was the biggest pumpkin ever grown?
Ben Stevens, Tall Trees, California

Two years ago, Herman Bax of Brockville, Ontario, left pumpkin fans agog with a monster that weighed in at 990 pounds. Bax's record managed to survive the '95 season, when the world's biggest was a mere 968-pounder from the Lowville, New York, patch of Paula Zehr. But this may be the year the pumpkin establishment has been waiting for: The Year of the Kilopounder. In fact, the World Pumpkin Confederation is offering $50,000 to the grower who breaks the thousand-pound mark.

Most world records have come from the northern United States and Canada, along the 45th parallel. (Stray south of that and you get into humongous watermelon territory, which is a whole different story.) Competitors let their vines sprawl out as much as 1,500 square feet, and they pile on some ten cubic yards of composted manure per plant. Herman Bax is rumored to have placed his patch directly over an old septic field (he's not talking). During the peak season, in midsummer, a world-class pumpkin will slurp up more than 1,000 gallons of water per week and take on 30 pounds per day. Sometimes they grow so fast that they simply explode.

Elite pumpkin growers are as serious about genealogy as Kentucky Thoroughbred breeders. Most of the champs are descended from a line known as Howard Dill's Atlantic Giant. A seed scraped from a world champion can fetch $10, and since some of these monstrosities hold as many as 700 seeds, some growers have made a nice cottage industry out of pumpkin husbandry. But most people simply do it for the thrill. Reminiscing on her leviathan from last year, Paula Zehr says,"We were just very excited to see something that could get that big."

Caribbean sunsets often end with an oddity called "the green flash." Is it real, or just a margarita side effect?
Frank King, Nashua, New Hampshire

No, the green flash really happens. The physics is tricky to explain, but it has to do with the way the atmosphere works like a prism, bending the last rays of the sinking sun and selectively scattering the blue end of the spectrum. If conditions are right, just before the final sliver of sun vanishes, and just for a second, it'll turn a vivid emerald hue. Actually, the green flash is visible at both sunset and sunrise, and not just in the tropics. But it tends to be most visible over the sea or other places where the horizon is especially low, and on nights that are perfectly clear. There are spots where it's quite commonplace-Hawaii, for instance-though no one knows why.

Officially, what is it that distinguishes a river from a creek?
Bill Jorns, Tokyo

The problem is worse than you think. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which is the court of last resort on such matters, has recorded 154 different terms for what it calls a "linear, overland, flowing body of water." So we don't just have rivers and creeks to contend with; we have ances, bournes, cams, drokes, freshets, guzzles, kills...on and on it goes. Some of them are quite specific. "Anabranch," for instance, is a bit of river that veers from the main course and then returns to it later. Others are impossible to nail down: A "bogue" is a swamp in some parts of the country and a stream in others; a "coulee" in Louisiana is filled with water, while in Montana it's usually dry. Basically, there is no precise, consistent, nationally applicable definition of a river or creek. The Board's solution? It simply refers to all linear, overland, flowing bodies of water as "streams," and leaves it at that. It's nice to see a government agency with a sense of the possible.

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