After hanging on to set a record, the Tanana River ice in Nenana finally gave way Monday afternoon at 3:41 p.m. local time, netting a Kenai couple $318,500. Warren and Yvonne Snow were declared the winners when the river began flowing, tripping a clock mounted to the familiar black-and-white tripod.
The Snows guess: 2:40 p.m. The tickets are logged in Alaska Standard Time, and an hour is added to each guess that's logged after Daylight Savings Time begins. This year daylight savings began on March 10, making the Snows' guess one minute shy of the actual time the tripod fell. Since no one guessed the exact minute the ice went out, close was good enough for the Snows.
Each year, thousands of Alaskans pay $2.50 to guess the exact date and minute the Tanana River ice will go out in Nenana. This year, 261,000 people bought tickets, bringing the winner's take to an estimated $318,000. That's just shy of last year's record jackpot of $350,000, claimed by Tom Waters, a Fairbanks man who had won the annual guessing game twice before.
The May 20 breakup this year sets a record for the latest the ice has gone out in Nenana since local railroad workers began record keeping 97 years ago.
"It actually went out three hours to-the-minute past the previous record, set in 1964," said Cherie Forness, the executive director of the Ice Classic. To the north and west of Nenana, the Yukon River has already started to break up, causing major flooding in both Circle and Eagle.
The brutal winter Alaska experienced created more ice on the river this year. The last measurement, taken May 6, showed the river ice was 40 inches thick, and had actually grown 3 inches in just two days. By contrast, last year, the ice was only 28.7 inches thick on April 19. After that, it became too dangerous to check. But, this year’s cold may have taken most guessers by surprise.
"Over the past few years, we have seen more and more picks for early April and fewer picks later in May," Forness said.
Throughout the morning and afternoon, Monday, a web camera showed increasing channels of open water growing around the tripod in the hours before ice-out. The camera refreshes its picture every 30 seconds, and dozens of people could be seen watching the tripod from the nearby river bank.
It usually takes a few days for the winners to be named after the break-up of the Tanana River, but not this year. Since the ice held on until late May, the Ice Classic had plenty of time to log paper ticket guesses into its computer database.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com