Brainerd diver sinks to carve pumpkin, surfaces with prize

Paula Persons, a certified diver, took home the prize for most creative in the Minnesota School of Diving Inc.'s annual Halloween underwater pumpkin-carving contest at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby.

22-year veteran underwater pumpkin carver Paula Persons carves a conjoined pumpkin from Mike Koering's pumpkin patch underwater at the Minnesota School of Diving Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest Saturday, Oct. 31, in the Louise Mine Lake. The contest takes place each year in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby. Person captured the most creative award with her creation. This year 12 divers competed in the annual event with prizes given out for several entries. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Carving a pumpkin can be hard.

Carving one underwater? Brainerd resident Paula Persons said that can be even harder, especially if one doesn’t know what they’re doing — and especially if it’s conjoined pumpkins.

“The bigger the pumpkin is, the more buoyant it is. And it wants to go to the surface, so you have to hold it down. ... We put weights inside the pumpkins and then your hands start to get cold and you don’t have the dexterity you normally would, so it’s very challenging,” she said.

SCUBA diver Paul Persons displays her conjoined pumpkin after carving it underwater during the Minnesota School of Diving Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest Saturday, Oct. 31, in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Persons reserved the pumpkin from Mike Koering who operates a pumpkin patch. This year Koering entrusted the conjoined pumpkin to Persons for the creative challenge. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch


Persons competed on Halloween in the Minnesota School of Diving Inc.’s annual underwater pumpkin-carving contest at Louise Mine Lake and received a prize for her bug-like creation made from a conjoined pumpkin.

“This water isn’t exactly warm. And what happens when you get down there, the pumpkins start to get brittle because they get cold, so you have to be real careful. And you use a dive knife, which doesn’t have a pointed end,” she said.

Conjoined pumpkins

Persons said she has obtained her pumpkins from Mike Koering of Brainerd for about the past decade. The 66-year-old pumpkin grower sells them in the parking lot at Essentia Health Sports Center in Brainerd.

“I always show up and I say, ‘Do you have a really unique pumpkin for me? Because I’m going to dive and carve it underwater,’” Persons recalled. “And this year, he says, ‘Boy, do I have the pumpkin for you!’”

Koering said he harvested conjoined pumpkins four times in the last two decades that the retired Brainerd Public Utilities worker has been growing pumpkins. He agreed to let Persons have the conjoined pumpkins in exchange for photos of Persons carving the pumpkins.

“He didn’t want to give it away to me right away,” Persons said. “But then I told him, ‘I don’t need it until Halloween, so you can have it ‘til Halloween.’ Well, he gave it to me a little in advance, and so I got to carve the conjoined pumpkins, and I came out with the ‘Most Creative’ pumpkin.”


RELATED: Conjoined pumpkins, ears of corn by local growers turn heads

Carving contest

More than a dozen divers competed, with awards for “Most Spookiest” pumpkin and other categories, but the Halloween contest is intended to be fun and encourage interest in diving.

“We gut the pumpkins out because the fish like to come in, and they like to eat the pumpkin seeds and stuff, so then here we are — we’re arguing with the fish … we’re mixing up the water, so it’s starting to get cloudy and you can’t see what you’re doing,” she said of the challenges.

The 66-year-old said her underwater pumpkin-carving creation was inspired by the classic children’s Hasbro game Cootie, a bug-building game for those ages 3 and older.

“We made a couple antenna and I made a couple of wings. And I thought ‘This will work,’ and it turned out pretty good. … It’s challenging — there’s no doubt about it — but it is so much fun,” she said of her prize-winner creation.

Contestants in the annual Minnesota School of Diving annual underwater pumpkin diving contest wait for the results from the judges Saturday, Oct. 31, in the Louise mine lake. The event marks the end of the school's fun dives for the season. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Mine pits

The Minnesota School of Diving Inc. offers local scuba diving excursions to the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area mine pit lakes; and dive travel — domestic and worldwide.


“I dive basically in the pits at least twice a week from the first of May until ice freeze-up. I think I’ll go again this weekend but will then probably call it quits for the year,” Persons said. “It is close to Brainerd. We have some of the clearest mine pits in the state of Minnesota.

“They quit mining it, so they quit pumping the water out of the mine pits and then it filled up with water naturally,” she said of the lake. “The fish aren’t afraid of you when you dive. They’ll come right up to you and peck on your mask. It’s just cool to see them in their own environment.”

RELATED: Halloweird: Locals get creative for unusual 2020 holiday
Besides regularly diving at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby, she dives once a month during the winter months in the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth.

“We feed the fish. We ham it up for the kids. I interact with the children outside and then we clean the inside of the tanks,” Persons said of her volunteer work.

Persons’ dive on Halloween for the underwater pumpkin-carving contest at Louise Mine Lake was her 865th overall, a total she added to days later on Thursday, Nov. 5 at the aquarium in Duluth.


Trout, walleye and Northern pikes can be found in the mine pit lakes, according to Persons, but also old mining equipment, railroad track and mine shafts.

“It’s so intriguing when you get down there and you can forget everything that’s going on up above,” she said. “You’re focusing on staying alive, on breathing. I get to see things that other people do not … and we get to see such a wide variety of fish.”

Persons received her diving certification from the Minnesota School of Diving Inc., which includes locations in Brainerd and St. Cloud. The certified diver has been diving for more than two decades and is one of the few contestants who have participated every year in the contest.


Paula Persons, a Brainerd certified diver, displays her bug-like underwater pumpkin-carving creation while another diver in the annual Minnesota School of Diving Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest displays his likeness of Mike Wazowski from the Disney Pixar's movie "Monsters, Inc." Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“They started the contest the year I was certified, which was 22 years ago … so I got certified, they handed me a knife and a pumpkin, and they told me to go underwater and carve it, and I did,” she said laughing. “And I thought, ‘Are you nuts?’”

Persons won a Minnesota School of Diving beanie hat — and bragging rights — this year for her carved pumpkin, she said.

“Some people just leave their pumpkins there (by the lake) for the deer to eat. I choose to bring mine home because then I put them out for the neighbor kids. … You can tell somebody, ‘I carved my pumpkin 30 feet underwater,’” Persons said.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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