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The River That’s Kept Alaska Guessing for More Than a Century | Travel

Erin Donaghue

In the central Alaskan town of Nenana, watching ice melt is more exciting than it sounds. Each spring for more than 100 years, residents have organized a high-stakes guessing game over when the ice will break up on the Tanana River.

After a long, cold winter, the ice on the Tanana, which runs alongside the town, can measure more than three feet thick. But as the weather warms in the early spring, participants keep a close watch for signs that the ice is starting to soften. This year, they have until April 5 to buy a $3 ticket and enter a guess about when the ice will melt enough to start floating in pieces downstream. Whoever gets closest—to the day, hour and minute—will win a substantial pot of money and bragging rights as the Nenana Ice Classic champion.

“It’s unique—I don’t know anywhere else in the world where people stand around watching ice melt and move,” says Nenana Mayor Joshua Verhagen. “People get really excited about it. I would say there’s quite a lot of enthusiasm just about the tradition and the possibility of winning.”

Nenana Ice Classic ad

A sign advertises Nenana Ice Classic ticket sales at Hot Springs Gas, a Fairbanks gas and grocery store.

Hot Springs Gas

Residents have developed their own system for determining when, exactly, the ice breakup happens. In early March, organizers affix a nearly 30-foot-tall wooden “tripod”—which actually has four legs—into the ice. When the ice moves and the structure travels 100 feet, a cable attaching it to shore sets off a siren, drawing a crowd to the riverbank. The cable also stops a clock that records the exact moment the tripod hits the 100-foot mark. The earliest time ever recorded was 12:21 a.m. AKDT on April 14 in 2019, and the latest was 2:41 p.m. on May 20 in 2013.

“Everyone’s in their houses, and the next thing you know, that riverbank is loaded—I mean loaded—with people,” says longtime Nenana resident Margie Riley, 79. “It’s a celebration.”

The Nenana Ice Classic has been a beloved tradition for generations of Alaskans, both in the town of about 350, located 55 miles southwest of Fairbanks, and across the state. The annual event is so ingrained in the calendar that it’s almost like a fifth season between winter and spring, according to Ice Classic director Megan…

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