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Will this year's Nenana Ice Classic set a record for latest ice-out ever?

Sean Doogan
Ice atop the Tanana River, like many Alaska waterways, is unusually thick for mid-May. The popular Nenana Ice Classic may be headed for a record. James Brooks / cc via flickr

If you bought a ticket to guess when the ice will go out in Tanana River this year, your chance of winning has probably already come and gone – along with tens of thousands of other gamblers who entered the Nenana Ice Classic.  That’s because the ice atop the Tanana, like many Alaska waterways, is unusually thick for mid-May.

“It could be one for the record books,” said Nenana Ice Classic Executive Director Cherie Forness. She lives in Nenana and reports a few small puddles of open water about three-quarters of a mile upstream and downstream from the tripod.  But Forness doesn’t believe they are big enough to help the ice go out this week.  

Of course, she could be wrong. “I have been guessing for 17 years and have never won myself,” Forness said.  

The annual guessing game began 97 years ago as a bet between railroad workers about when the river would start running come spring.  Today, Alaskans pay $2.50 for a chance to guess the exact day, hour, and minute the ice on the Tanana River will go out – pulling with it the famous black-and-white striped tripod with a red flag, which stops a shore-mounted clock nearby. If nobody guesses the exact time, the closest guess wins, regardless of whether it is over or under the actual ice-out time.  Ties share the jackpot, and frequently several tickets share the winning time.

But the odds of a solo winner winning a fat wad of cash increase as time passes. “After May 15, most of the guesses are solos – meaning they are the only ones with that time,” Forness said.

Setting a Record?

The latest the ice has ever gone out was May 20, 1964. And with the red-and-white tripod still surrounded by ice, the chance of eclipsing that date is improving daily.

The Alaska Pacific River Forecast Center’s (APRFC) map of waterways shows much of the Last Frontier remains locked in a wintery embrace.  Mid-May weather isn’t helping much, either, as a mass of cold air has dropped temperatures to record or near-record lows across the Interior. In Nenana, the weekend forecast is for highs in the 30s.  All that adds up to a very late breakup on rivers and streams.

“It’s possible, with current weather forecasts and ice conditions, that we could see the Tanana River surpass its record for ice-out,” said Jim Coe, Senior Hydrologist with the river forecast center.

Cole and other hydrologists should know. They are responsible for tracking the water flows and ice data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But even they can’t say for sure when it will happen. “No one from the River Forecast Center has ever won the Nenana Ice Classic,” Coe said.

A man who has made a habit of winning the state’s biggest guessing game is Fairbanks resident Tom Waters.  He has cashed in on the prize three times, including last year when he was the sole winner of a record $350,000 jackpot.  Waters says he spends hours and hours every year drilling the river ice near Nenana to test and log its thickness -- and thousands of dollars on Ice Classic tickets.  But don’t bet on Tom Waters this year.  According to the Nenana Ice Classic office, the defending champion  doesn’t have any guesses left in play.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com

CORRECTION:  An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the tripod as red-and-white striped.