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Nenana Ice Classic: Keeping Alaskans guessing for 97 years

Laurel Andrews
The tripod is erected on the Nenana River during the Ice Classic's Tripod Days in early March. Courtesy Nenana Ice Classic

Time is dwindling to take your chances on Alaska’s favorite guessing game, the Nenana Ice Classic. Only 11 days remain to predict when ice will go out on the Nenana River in Interior Alaska. Guess the exact time, down to the minute, and you could win big.   

Every year, hundreds of thousands of guesses are made as to when the iconic black-and-white tripod, secured two-feet deep in the ice, will shift and trip the clock that determines the winning time. Last year saw record sales and a record jackpot of $350,000. Manager Cherrie Forness said “it’s a little too early to tell” how sales will turn out this year.

Like many great traditions, the contest started as a bet between friends. In 1917, Alaska railroad engineers bet $800 on when the river would break up. This is the 97th anniversary of the contest that has paid out more than $11 million since that first bet.

“It’s the oldest entity basically in the state of Alaska that’s still in operation,” Forness said. In 1970, the contest officially became a nonprofit organization, and now they pay out some $30,000 to charities every year in addition to the contest winnings.

Last year nearly 280,000 guesses were made on a record jackpot of $350,000 and only one winner, Thomas Waters, emerged with the correct time of 7:39 p.m. on April 23. Waters walked away with $242,000 after taxes.

Not only did Waters win big, but it was the third time that he held a winning ticket. He also guessed correctly in 1979 and 1983.

Waters has his methodology down to a science. He told the Anchorage Daily News last year that he spent $5,000 on tickets and around 1,200 hours calculating when the ice would go out. He drilled holes in the ice to measure its thickness, and purchased a ticket for every single minute of every hour during the winning afternoon.

Although Waters’ methods seem to have paid off, Forness said that in the end, winning “boils down to luck.”

“You can take ice measurements, you can do whatever you do,” Forness said, but the major factors influencing when the ice breaks occur after the contest closes.

“It depends on the spring,” she said, “and how much snow we have, how fast it melts.”

Studies done at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have attempted to nail down a method for calculating when the ice will go out, but they have so far been unsuccessful, she said.

This year a relatively chilly March in Interior Alaska has kept river ice has thick. As of March 21, ice thickness measured 50 inches. By comparison, in 2012 ice thickness was 37.7 inches on March 19. 

You can check out the current and past years’ ice thickness measurements, winning times, where to buy tickets, and a live webcam at the Nenana Ice Classic website. Tickets must be purchased in Alaska, but anyone can play. Tickets cost $2.50 a piece, and the contest closes April 5.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com