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Watch the ice melt

Alaska's century-old rite of spring

What do Alaskan pilots do for fun all winter long? Sit around and guess when the ice will melt? Yup, in the "Last Frontier," that's exactly what they do. And virtually the entire state has a vested interest in this game.

Each spring, thousands of people enter a lottery by making their best guess (by April 5) on exactly when this tripod on the thick winter ice of the Tanana River will begin to drift downstream, pulling a rope that stops a clock in the tower. A winning guess can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Photo courtesy of Megan Baker, assistant manager of the Nenana Ice Classic.

Each year, residents of Nenana, Alaska, a town of about 375 people located 45 miles southwest of Fairbanks, sponsor a lottery. The Nenana Ice Classic is the talk of Alaska. AOPA Alaska Regional Manager Tom George hosted an FAA staffer visiting from Oklahoma City in early April, just ahead of the April 5 entry deadline, and reported that the visitor (a human factors specialist) purchased tickets.

"Mine are still in my pocket," George said, "and if I don't get them into one of their red collection cans in a couple of days they won't count."

Each entry costs $2.50 and the prize pool can pile up long before the river ice breaks up, typically in late April or early May. The lottery was started in 1917 by railroad engineers who bet among themselves when the ice would break up enough for river boats to get through with supplies. The contest, thanks to its precision and long repetition, has produced data that is useful to climate scientists. 

Today, it’s a twenty-first-century lottery that offers a live webcam view of the apparatus consisting of a large timber tripod placed on the river ice between the highway and railroad bridges, and connected to the official contest clock by a rope that will stop the clock the instant the tripod moves, recording the precise moment the ice breaks up.

The winner is whomever comes closest to guessing the date and time when the spring melt stops the clock. The prize can reach or even exceed $300,000, as entries come from all over the state, and beyond.

As of April 21, the end was not yet in sight, according to Nenana Ice Classic Assistant Manager Megan Baker, who wrote in an email that the most recent measurement found the ice was still 32 inches thick, with little prospect of rapid decay: "The weather has started to warm up, but the evenings have still been quite chilly refreezing anything that had melted."

Alaskans buy the tickets and make their guesses at local shops. Anyone outside Alaska can participate by sending their guesses to the Nenana Ice Classic office, and staff will fill out lottery tickets. Due to state gaming regulations, they cannot mail the tickets to you, but they can mail copies. If you win, they’ll notify you. While this year's entry deadline has passed, any pilot who is interested in being there for the big event may find the logistics feasible, thanks to the local airport with an available courtesy car.

Nenana, Alaska

Nenana has been a transportation hub for centuries, due to its location at the confluence of the Nenana and Tanana Rivers. Native Americans gathered there to trade, and the town that was eventually settled there swelled with newcomers seeking fortunes during the gold rush. River trade blossomed with the arrival of steam-powered river boats. From the early twentieth century, it’s been a stop on the Alaskan railroad which runs between Seward on the southern coast, to Anchorage, Denali National Park, and on to its terminus at Fairbanks, near the center of the state.

Nenana isn’t a large town, just about six blocks in each direction. In addition to the Ice Classic and its famous (seasonal) Rube Goldberg-esque apparatus, there are two other tourist attractions—both railroad related. The Mears Memorial Bridge is a 700-foot-long railroad truss bridge over the Tanana River, and it was the longest in the United States when erected in 1923. The historic train depot houses the Alaska State Railroad Museum near the spot where President Warren G. Harding drove the ceremonial final golden spike of the Alaskan railroad, marking its completion.

Nenana is 230 miles north of Anchorage and makes a good stop on a flight from the coast to Denali National Park and onward to Fairbanks. It’s 57 miles north of the Denali Visitor Center—which has its own airport, McKinley National Park Airport—and then 45 miles more from Nenana to Fairbanks.

Nenana Municipal Airport

The Nenana Municipal Airport is one mile south of town, with two runways. Runway 04L/22R is 4,600 feet by 100 feet of asphalt and 04R/22L is 1,980 feet by 60 feet of turf, both around 360 feet msl. There is also a 3,601-foot by 100-foot seaplane landing area designated 04W/22W and room to tie up. There is no FBO, but 100LL and Jet A fuel are available and there is space to tie down. If you have a mechanical issue, you may find some assistance from other pilots, but there’s no commercial repair service. The airport is considered an alternate for Fairbanks as the weather is often better. The airport has a website and a Facebook page with more information and photography of the area. Visiting pilots may also call the airport manager at (907) 888-9065 for the current conditions and information.

Alaskan Courtesy

In addition to friendly pilots, train history and spectacular scenery, Nenana Airport offers pilots the only airport courtesy car in Alaska, as far as they know. No one has actually done a survey. The car is a Dodge Caravan, which is kept parked near the fuel pumps. The keys are in a lock box which can be opened by a combination that pilots will be able to figure out. Inside the van are menus for local restaurants. The van is meant for local use only, to go into town for a meal or to take a look at the bridge, the historic train station, or the ice tripod. Of course, there’s no way to reserve it, so it’s first come, first served—and be prepared to share with fellow pilots. Be kind and give it a couple gallons of gas before you return it.

If you need to overnight at Nenana, the town offers a couple hotels, a few Airbnb properties, restaurants, and a campground. You can even rent the brakeman’s room in the historic train depot through Airbnb.

Dennis K. Johnson

Dennis K. Johnson is an aviation writer and pilot living in New York City.
Topics: Alaska, Events, U.S. Travel

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