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Ted Hsu for MPP

Pumpkinferno lights up Fort Henry like never before

Just one of the displays as part of Pumpkinferno, which debuts this year at Fort Henry here in Kingston from Friday, Oct. 1 to Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021. Photo by Daniel Tastard Homer.

In years past, Fort Henry has often been lit up by ceremonial cannon fire, and while those events have been cancelled for 2021, Kingstonians craving spectacle can still see a magnificent light show this October, as artists collaborate to bring pumpkin sculptures to life in captivating orange glows within its limestone walls.

While Pumpkinferno had, until recently, been held exclusively in Upper Canada Village, popularity of the event warranted a second location this year at Fort Henry, where tickets are reportedly over 50 per cent sold out. Fort Henry’s latest crowd-pleaser runs from October 1 to 17, 2021, from 7 to 10 p.m., before switching to a 6:30 to 10 p.m. schedule as daylight shortens from October 18 until Halloween. This all-ages event also offers accessibility nights from October 6 to 13 this year, with advanced booking through the Fort Henry event website.  

The dazzling displays at Fort Henry are also broken down into 12 distinct tableaus – Dragon Lantern’s Lair, Cycle Through Time, Pumpkin Planetarium, Creeping Vineyard, Psychedelic 60s, Legends Of Our Land, Patriotic Pastimes, Fur Trade, Rainbow Migration, Great White North, Steampunk Station, Jack In The Boxes, Biodiversity Tree, Expression Progression, Night At The Gallery, and Historical Favourites. Though artificial, each of over 7,000 hand-carved pumpkins used for the sculptures are created from molds cast from real pumpkins that arrive to East Ontario designers and carvers in late spring and early summer. They’re then transfigured into vibrant masterpieces that range in size from one lone pumpkin, to hulking behemoths that nearly encompass the entire height of the Fort’s walls.

Pumpkinferno had its debut in 2012 at Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg and has since snowballed into one of autumn’s most anticipated yearly events for Kingston and the area, drawing crowds from all across Ontario and, up until recent pandemic years, the United States, as well.

When asked about whether the current COVID-19 pandemic played any part in the planning of Pumpkinferno at Fort Henry, Geoff Waycik, event spokesman and Director of Historic Sites for the St. Lawrence Parks Commission (which runs events at a number of Ontario historic sites) offered some insight.

“We were looking for something more family-friendly to come along, so we don’t want this to be interpreted as ‘due to COVID,’ we did this because of the marketing demand that we saw,” Waycik said.

“With respect to operations, we’ve been doing the timed entry in different formats for a number of years, and COVID has really been that catalyst to really fine-tune that entry process. Aside from that, we are only doing 150 [attendees] every half hour. Post-covid, that really only goes up to 200 or 250 [attendees] per half hour.”

As to what makes this year’s artistic display different from years prior held at Upper Canada Village, Waycik explained, “One of the things that I’m always impressed with the teams who put this together is that anybody can just… take all this and put it up against the wall. But there’s subtleties in where it’s placed, the angles at which their placed, the music that we are playing and the lighting – the up-lighting especially – and everything in between those things that come together to create such a magical experience. People can really connect with a well-carved pumpkin.”

In fact, the two events of the same name really share only that, Waycik expressed.

“They are two very separate experiences, but they have their own unique flair. An 1860s village with old buildings, and this limestone wonder,” he said, gesturing to the walls of Fort Henry.

“So, there are very unique and identifiable characteristics between the two [events].”

As for any proof of vaccination or mask policies at Pumpkinferno, spokespeople say the outdoor event encourages attendees to remain a “reasonable distance apart” at all times, does not require masks or face coverings to be worn, and that nonvaccinated members of the public are welcome. Hand sanitizer stations will be present at both the entry and exit points of the event, and event organizers ask that attendees screen for COVID-19 prior to attending, asks that anyone with COVID related symptoms not attend. This year, an ‘Easter egg’ has also been planted among the super-jack-o’-lantern sculptures, as Pumpkinferno pays tribute to the founder of the event (who remains anonymous) in the most “groovy” way possible (wink, wink). As for any future plans or other hidden gems, event organizers advised, “Expect to be dazzled, and expect the unexpected.”

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