Nov. 1, 2014 – More than 4,600 people passed through the gates at the Calgary Corn Maze Oct.11 in search of fall fun at the annual Autumn Pumpkin Festival.

Hundreds of eager youngsters scrambled through the pumpkin patch in search of the perfect miniature gourd to decorate at the festival, and ideal candidates to take home for a night of jack-o-lantern carving.

The most entertaining aspect of the afternoon was, not surprisingly, the pumpkin destruction zone, where events such as the pumpkin launch, pumpkin-pie-eating contest, and pumpkin explosion took place.

While hundreds of people watched, corn maze employee Nick O’Brien loaded his handcrafted trebuchet with the largest, roundest pumpkins he could find, launching them 200 metres across the field toward a bull’s-eye-embossed hay bale.

Should either of his pumpkins have hit the target, the Calgary Corn Maze would have donated $500 to its charity of the year, Inn from the Cold.

Unfortunately, both launches were unsuccessful and ended with pumpkins careening to the ground, exploding on impact – much to the delight of the audience members, who cheered as shell and pulp flew through the air.

“We were close today, though, I think,” O’Brien grinned.

The trebuchet was a new addition to pumpkin fest events this year, and was built primarily by O’Brien, with help from a few Calgary Corn Maze employees.

“I would say there’s probably 50 man hours in there, which we put in just in the last three weekends before the festival started,” said O’Brien, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Mary’s School in Okotoks who commits his spare time to the corn maze.

“It was a lot of fun to build, and it’s even more fun to launch and see this vision come to life every weekend.”

While each launch took only seconds from start to finish, setting up the trebuchet for a new pumpkin and resetting the hay bale was a 10-minute job.

To entertain the enthusiastic crowd during the lulls, Calgary Corn Maze owner Mark Muchka hosted a pumpkin-pie-eating contest with 10 couples taken from the audience.

Partners faced one another, and one person ate his or her slice of pie out of the hands of the other – with a lot of mess and some gagging along the way – much to the pleasure of the hundreds of people looking on.

Children watched and pointed with glee as pie-eaters emerged from bites with custard and whipped cream on their faces, while adults laughed and cringed simultaneously.

The winner was declared after only two minutes, and the couples dispersed.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to look at pumpkin pie the same again,” laughed contest runner-up Kelsey Palmer, who ran a close second as she devoured her slice of pie out of partner Ryan Mont’s hands.

“I think I gagged every time I swallowed. It was nasty,” said Palmer.

“I definitely won’t be having any with my Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow.”

After the last trebuchet launch, Muchka moved the crowd back several feet outside the perimeter of the destruction zone.

“This is the best part, folks,” Muchka called into his mic, pointing to the top of two hay bales in the middle of the field.

“Watch that pumpkin up there, and when you see it explode – and only when you see it explode – feel free to run out and get your candy.”

With those words of warning, Muchka climbed to the top bale, set a charge, and, once he was safely on the ground and out of danger, he detonated a candy-filled pumpkin.

The gourd burst in a fraction of a second – in fact, it was easy to miss the actual explosion in the blink of an eye – and children swarmed the grassy field in search of the promised treats just as quickly.

Muchka waited behind the bales with bags of treats, giving handfuls to kids who had not found any in the grass.

Almost all of the 1,000 pumpkins the corn maze brought in for its long-weekend Saturday event had been purchased and taken home by visitors.

The carving pumpkins were delivered from farms around Taber, Alta., which is just far enough south to successfully grow the gourds.

“We used to try to grow them ourselves, but our nights are just too cold here in Calgary,” said Muchka.

“I’d love to have a pumpkin patch. I would.

“But the reality is, we’d have to do the harvest in August before the first frost, and at that time of year they’re just not ready.”

After spending over four hours in the park, the children walked with satisfied smiles back toward the parking lot with large pumpkins cradled in their arms to take home.

They couldn’t wait to return next fall, and see what lies in store for the unsuspecting pumpkins in the destruction zone.

“That’s what we want,” said Muchka.

“Hopefully this can become a family tradition, and we can be a part of creating memories for people.”

The Calgary Corn Maze operates from the end of July until the end of October each year.