Betting on an Icy Break-up: How to Make the Winter More Interesting with the Nenana Ice Classic

Winters in Alaska can be brutal. “Tell us something we don’t know,” I can hear you saying. But it’s not the cold I struggled with. I got tired of the death grip that winter had on my world. I wasn’t able to go outside without 3 layers or more (cue the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man) and as cumbersome as this was, after I did get dressed to go somewhere, not many people were out. Winters got very lonely, not a good time to make friends and get involved in the community.

The beginning of winter has the holidays; baking, presents, decorating, traveling. But after the New Year? Winter becomes bleak, the exact kind Christina Rossetti describes in her Christmas Carol, with earth as hard as iron, frosty wind moaning, and snow on snow on snow on snow on the first snow of the season in September. The early months of the year are when winter was the hardest, when all you want is a little sunshine, a little glimpse that winter might not last for the rest of your life. Many Alaskans take this time to go to Hawaii, their unrequited love of the islands that will never return the favor. I found solace and trivial excitement in the tradition of the Nenana Ice Classic.

nenana ice classic

The town of Nenana, aptly named for its location where the Nenana River joins the Tanana River, approximately 35 miles southwest of Fairbanks. Every year, the Tanana River freezes, starting during the month of October and thickens through the winter. To pass the time while building the railroad in this area, starting in 1917, railroad engineers used to bet on when the ice would break-up (according to the Nenana Ice Classic Official Website). This tradition continued and now includes people from all over the world, betting when the ice on the Tanana River will break-up. To bet, one must purchase a $2.50 ticket in Alaska or email or mail a chosen day, hour, and minute to the Nenana Ice Classic. Due to the increased amount of people and accuracy of the bet (down to the minute!), the monitoring system for break-up has had to improve. On April 1, a large tripod is planted on the Tanana River, about 300 feet from shore and just upriver of the Nenana River tributary. The tripod is then linked to a clock that stops when the ice breaks and the tripod starts moving downstream with the flowing water.

We found this tradition through advertising in Fairbanks at the local liquor store (also a common winter pastime). Pretty soon, our family members wanted in on the fun too. We would buy upwards of 30 tickets and fill them in with all our family and friends bets for the break-up. The contest closed a few days after the first of April when the tripod was placed and a celebration took place in the town of Nenana to mark the positioning of the tripod. We’d all watch the webcam anxiously as the weather started to warm, the days lengthened and the winter’s tight hold began to loosen. The closest anyone ever came to winning was my sister, Amanda, who was only 1 hour from the break-up time in 2015.

2017 marked the 101st year of betting on the break-up, and we’ve yet to see the ice make its move this year. Join in the fun no matter where you live on the Nenana Ice Classic website and help winter pass more quickly with this fun tradition.

Has anyone else done this? Any good methods for estimating the break-up on the Tanana? Please share any comments, questions or stories below! I’d love to hear them :)