Alaska’s biggest lottery involves waiting for the ice to crack in a tiny town near Fairbanks.
On March 8th – the day the tripod went up – it was -4 in Nenana, and the ice was a respectable 38 inches thick. A bit thinner then some years, but more then thick enough to walk – or drive a truck on.
Sometime in late April or early May, that ice will break, and the tripod will fall. There are thousands of people waiting to see exactly when that will happen – and a betting pool of about $300,000 going to whoever can guess the exact minute.
Nenana was officially founded as a railroad town in 1916. There was already a trading post in the area, and a church mission which still stands today had been built in 1905. And it had been a Tanana camp since far, far before that. But it was the railroad that brought a population boom.
It was here, in 1923, that the northern and southern sections of the Alaska railroad would be unified, creating the first direct transportation route between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Since that couldn’t happen until engineers had built what was then the longest trestle bridge in the US, it took some time. Time when there were a lot of railroad workers around and not much to do over the winter.
The Ice Classic has its roots in a bar bet at the trading post, where a man named Oliver Lee won a couple rounds and a place in Alaskan history by correctly guessing the date of breakup in Spring 1906. But it was sometime in the winter of 1916 when the modern ice classic was born, thanks to those bored railroad workers. By the next year, word had spread, and bets came in from all over Alaska and the Yukon.
And it kept going, evolving from a simple betting pool to . . . well, a less simple betting pool. Alaska doesn’t have a state lottery, so over the years, the Ice Classic has evolved into a sort of unofficial one.
Last year, the pot was $363,627 – split among the 25 people who somehow predicted that the winning minute would be 3:48 p.m on April 25th. (That’s Alaska Standard Time, mind you. The ice clock doesn’t observe daylight savings.)
Today, Nenana has a population of about 200. It still has a railroad depot, which also houses a small museum on the railroad history. There’s a small visitor’s center facing the Parks Highway, the only road between Anchorage and Fairbanks. If you stop by in the summer, someone in the visitor’s center will encourage you to see the church’s hand-beaded alter cloth and the Ice Classic tripod, safely stored on dry land when not in use.
My single bet for this year – April 30th, 5:16 pm. A bit on the early side, but nothing record setting. So will I win a share of the 300 and something thousand dollars? Probably not.
But watching the ice gives me one more reason to look forward to spring.