Pumpkins set sail for kids

Crew of Tustumena ferry brings Halloween spirit to Aleutian ports

Posted: Sunday, October 30, 2005


  Capt. Robert Crowley, fittingly costumed as a king, joins trick-or-treaters on the car deck of the M/M Tustumena. Photo courtesy of Bobbie Lee Bri

Capt. Robert Crowley, fittingly costumed as a king, joins trick-or-treaters on the car deck of the M/M Tustumena.

Photo courtesy of Bobbie Lee Bri

It was a dark and stormy night, with Kachemak Bay swells crashing over themselves, their bone-numbing white foam reflected in lights along the shore. A chilly wind slapped the faces of stocking-capped crewmembers of the M/V Tustumena as they cast off heavy lines.

Turning to starboard, the 296-foot ship headed for the distant harbor of Kodiak, before continuing on its last run of the season to the remote community of Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska. The last run of the season is a special occasion.

And the dark and stormy night of Oct. 4 was the perfect beginning of the sixth "Great Aleutian Pumpkin Run."

Six years ago the crew of the M/V Tustumena, one of 11 ships in the Alaska Marine Highway System, decided to use the October voyage to Dutch Harbor as an opportunity to deliver pumpkins to children along the ship's Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula route, many of whom had never seen Halloween's famous orange hallmark.

"It was all very serendipitous," said Don Darnell of Homer and Halibut Cove, an AMHS retiree who crewed on the Tustumena. Inspired by another crewmember who was buying pumpkins to take to the tiny village of Akutan, Darnell and Chief Purser Christy Taylor took up a collection among the crew to help purchase additional pumpkins.

"We twisted some arms and came up with $200, marched off to Safeway and asked them for a deal," Darnell said of conversations with Lee Bondurant, former produce manager of Safeway's Kodiak store. "The more we sat there and yakked, the more he got excited and pretty soon he said, 'Well listen, I'll give you a whole crate for $200 and throw in another crate.' That started it all. He's our patron saint."

This year, thanks to Bondurant's continued support, the ship traveled with seven cribs, some 3.5 tons, of pumpkins donated by the Washington Lettuce Company in Washington and shipped to Kodiak by Safeway.

"It's not all me," Bondurant said, quickly pointing out the efforts of others. "There's a lot of people involved that do a lot of things to make this happen. Darnell and myself, we're like the originals that got it started. And now Mark Listberger is really taking this under his wing and is doing a tremendous job. He's brought tremendous growth to the program."

One of the accomplishments of Chief Steward Listberger of Anchor Point is to enlist the help of PenAir, a commuter airline company that services this far-flung part of Alaska. In addition to the Tustumena's stops at Chignik, Sand Point, King Cove, Cold Bay, False Pass, Akutan and Dutch Harbor, PenAir flies pumpkins to Chignik Lake, Chignik Lagoon, Perryville, Nelson Lagoon, Nikolski and Atka.

As the ship pulls into port, the crew slips into costumes to the delight of the waiting youngsters.

"The kids love to see them dressed up as they're approaching the dock," said Kelly Bjornstad of Sand Point, who was on hand with her 8- and 13-year-old daughters when the Tustumena arrived.

Bjornstad is secretary at Sand Point School and currently is collecting thank-you notes written by the school's 117 students to the ship's crew. "The kids love seeing them popping their heads out, wearing big wigs and funny costumes."

Darnell, who joined his former shipmates for this year's event, said the crew's enthusiasm made this the best-ever pumpkin run.

"They just had all kinds of great makeup and really nice costumes and put on a different one every day," he said. "We had guys in Tyvek suits wearing gorilla masks and driving the forklift. And all the officers got into it, even the captain."

Taylor's costume-finding expertise located the perfect thing for Capt. Robert Crowley, a king's costume.

"He put it on in every port," Darnell said.

Sand Point resident Heather Thompson took her son Logan, 4, and daughter Madison, 6, to meet the ship.

"The kids were very, very excited," she said. "It was pretty chaotic, but (the ship's crew) did a really good job. We have our pumpkins at our house, waiting for Halloween."

Listberger, who also has received donations of candy from the American Legion in Ninilchik, agrees with Darnell's evaluation of this year's pumpkin run.

"The teamwork and Halloween spirit this year by far surpassed all other years," Listberger wrote to the ship's crew. "I again thank you all for all the help and hope that all of us (were) able to feel that inner child within ourselves, knowing we were able to bring a little joy to so many children. That is what it's really all about."

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