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Minnesota Zoo's Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular is a walk through time

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The Jack-O'-Lantern Spectacular takes visitors on a lit path in the woods.
The Jack-O'-Lantern Spectacular at the Minnesota Zoo takes visitors on a lit path in the woods. This is the first year for the event, which the zoo hopes to make an annual showcase.
Carina Lofgren for MPR News

To call the pumpkins Travis Reckner and his jolly band of carvers create jack-o'-lanterns seems a bit of a disservice.

The orange orbs are more like a canvas for intricate works of organic art. 

And this year, for the first time, the Minnesota Zoo is their gallery. 

Reckner and more than 30-plus artists brought their work to the Apple Valley zoo for its first  Jack-O'-Lantern Spectacular. Reckner, 46, said he hopes the strolling exhibit that showcases 5,000 carved and crafted pumpkins nestled along a path through the woods, will become an annual tradition as it has in Providence, R.I., and Louisville, Ky. 

This year's theme is a walk through time and takes visitors through a series of vignettes that feature pumpkins carved with dinosaurs, the Renaissance period, through modern-day. There are about 125 intricately carved pumpkins, while others are smaller and more traditional.  

"It's a lot of work," said Reckner, who is one of the owners of Massachusetts-based Passion for Pumpkins,  the production company that puts on the show. "Fortunately here in Minnesota, it's been a walk in refrigerator for the entire month. I don't want to say easy but it's been a dream scenario.

"It's been very welcoming, to say the least," said Reckner, who has been carving pumpkins for 30 years alongside his dad who founded the company. The family-owned and operated business started as a school fundraiser.

Then it grew. 

And grew.  

The Minnesota Zoo's Jack-O'-Lantern Spectacular is on a wooded path.
The Minnesota Zoo's Jack-O'-Lantern Spectacular is on a wooded path and features 5,000 carved and etched pumpkins.
Carina Lofgren for MPR News

And grew.

Kind of like the giant pumpkins that are on display at the zoo. The largest pumpkin weighs in at a whopping 2,100 pounds, he said. 

Nearly 30,000 people have visited the display to date, said Michelle Benson, a zoo spokesperson. 

"With no other event like this in the Midwest, we jumped on the opportunity to bring it to Minnesota," Benson said in an email. 

She said the zoo doesn't have a hard monetary goal for the display, but rather: "We wanted to bring a quality fall event to the zoo that our attendees would love."

Proceeds from the event will support the zoo's animal care, environmental education and conservation efforts both locally and around the globe, according to the zoo's website.

Reckner said he hopes the event draws 100,000 visitors and makes several hundreds of thousands of dollars for the zoo. 

"I am humbled by the success of the show," he said. "It's a fundraiser for the zoo and we are able to support local artists and local growers. It gives me an incredible sense of pride."

 First batch of pumpkins, artists imported from Kentucky

The first batch of intricately-carved but not gutted pumpkins made the 12-hour trek to Minnesota from Kentucky in a semi-tractor trailer, he said. 

An etching of the Renaissance era at the Minnesota Zoo.
The Minnesota Zoo's first Jack-O'-Lantern Spectacular was themed a "Walk Through Time,'' and features vignettes of pumpkins etched with images from different historic time periods.
Carina Lofgren for MPR News

However, as some grow soft and mushy they are being replaced with locally-sourced pumpkins carved by local artists. 

But where does one look for pumpkin carvers? Craigslist, of course. Pen and ink sketch artists, as well as tattoo artists,  make the best pumpkins, Reckner said. There are now about 12 local artists working on replacing pumpkins as needed.

Reckner said he wasn't quite sure what to expect with Minnesota's weather. He worried the first days of the show when it was warm and rainy, which is a recipe for rot. But a cold front that moved in behind it and the dry weather that followed made for near perfect pumpkin weather. 

"We may have pumpkins here that last for the whole month," he said.

But when the show ends on October 31, the pumpkins will be hauled to the zoo's compost heap. 

His team has already started planning for next year. The theme for that show will be a journey around the world.

In the meantime, Reckner said he'll be walking along the zoo's pumpkin paths nightly checking his works of art for soft spots, rot and mold. His team will remove and replace them with newly crafted ones.

"It's a living organic gallery and certain days it is shiny and sparkles a little better than others," he said. "It's really a quarter-mile compost pile artfully decorated through the woods.

"I think that's what people appreciate: How much work this takes," he added. "But it's so much fun."

Pumpkin carving 101

Reckner offered a few tips for at-home pumpkin artists:

• Don't cut the top of the pumpkin where the stem is. Cut the bottom of the pumpkin to drop in a candle or LED light on it and sit the carved pumpkin on that base.

• An ice cream scoop is the best for digging out pumpkin guts.

• Do not use kitchen knives to cut your jack-o'-lantern. Invest in a drywall saw to cut through a pumpkin.  

• Don't waste your money on those pumpkin-carving kits with plastic tools. They break easily. Instead, got to a local craft store and pick up a few clay-carving tools. 

• Inspired by the intricately-crafted pumpkins you saw at the zoo display? Look for a smooth-skinned pumpkin — varieties like a Big Mac or Prize Winner — at the patch. Use stencils or project an image on the pumpkin to draw it on the pumpkin.  Carve and craft from there. Just remember: The deeper the etching on the skin the lighter it will be; the more shallow the cut, the darker the color.