If it weren't for the contest, the town of Nenana, Alaska, might not exist. Even the mayor agrees. "Without the Ice Classic," says Robert Knight, "we'd be devastated financially—and spiritually." As it is, Nenana barely makes the map. It has one paved street, two bars and 500 residents, most of whom are members of either the Athabascan or the Inupiaq tribe.
The town sits beside the Tanana River, 55 miles south of Fairbanks, in central Alaska. The Tanana is where all the Ice Classic action—if it can be called that—takes place.
The Ice Classic gets going on Feb. 1, about four months after the Tanana freezes over. A 26-foot-high wooden structure known as the Tripod (never mind that it has four legs) is placed in a trench that has been cut in the ice in the middle of the river. On shore, across from the Tripod, is a 10-by-10-foot shack. Inside is a clock. Through an extraordinary rigging system involving ropes, counterweights, pulleys, a siren and a large cleaver, the Tripod and the clock are connected.
Before the Tripod goes up, dozens of red five-gallon containers are shipped to businesses throughout Alaska. These are for collecting Ice Classic tickets, on which the purchaser must guess the date, hour and minute that the ice will melt on the Tanana, sending the Tripod downstream and stopping the clock.
In Alaska the moment of a river's breakup is a significant event; it is the first sign that spring has arrived. The Classic has been celebrating this moment since 1917, when 800 guesses were made for a dollar each. Now, nearly 300,000 tickets are sold annually, at two dollars apiece, and the jackpot, often split several ways, is about a third of a million dollars. The Tripod—a new one must be built each year—is guarded 24 hours a day by local residents.
Breakup takes place in late April or early May, but several weeks beforehand, when the ice starts to thin and the April 5 betting deadline approaches, the action around Nenana intensifies. Newspaper reporters from Anchorage and Fairbanks arrive (TRIPOD DEFINITELY ON THIN ICE; TRIPOD STILL UP AS ICE BUCKLES), and Alaskan television stations include ice-thickness updates as part of their weather coverage. This year the ice broke at 4:54 p.m. on April 20, and seven winners shared the bonanza, each getting $42,857.15.
The only multiple winner has been Fairbanks resident Tom Waters, who drives to Nenana about 20 times every winter to examine the ice. He compares the current season's weather with historical trends. He studies railroad schedules. (When a freight train passes on the nearby tracks, Waters believes, the vibrations influence the time of breakup.) Then he fills out about 2,000 tickets, the cost paid for by sponsors who receive a share of his winnings. Waters, 40, won in 1979 and 1983 and has never missed by more than eight minutes.
Once the betting deadline is past and the canisters are shipped to Nenana, the pace picks up inside the civic center, a building that was partly financed by Ice Classic proceeds. The Classic is a nonprofit corporation. Most of the net income is invested in the community: The Ice Classic purchases schoolbooks and makes donations to charities; it pays hospital bills, provides college scholarships and funds civic events. And for one month every year it supplies income for nearly one fourth of the area's population.
Workers come to the civic center to sort tickets and earn between $5-65 and $6.30 an hour; students work at night, retirees all day. "Many people come out of the bush to count," says Cherrie Forness, the Ice Classic's manager. "This is the only time they're seen in town all year and the only income they make. They're subsistence hunters and trappers. They come here to work, but also to chat, to catch up with one another."
The tabulation is done manually. Forness realizes that by printing a bar code on each ticket and purchasing a computer system, she could have all the tickets tallied by a handful of workers over one weekend. This is not the way the people of Nenana want it. "Winters here are long and lonely," explains Forness. "This is an essential escape."