Thin ice on the Tanana


2nd Place Winner from Wasilla, for the Ice Classic poster contest

Nenana Ice Classic officials announced the ice thickness of the Tanana River recently. It was the thinnest ice ever recorded on the Tanana in January. To be fair, the Nenana Ice Classic contest may be over 100 years old, but officials only started announcing the ice thickness back in 1989.

January ice thickness usually falls between 30 and 45 inches in January. In 2019, the thickness was only 16 inches. The previous low was 21.5″ in 2004.

The Tanana River froze over in October, which is normal, but we had such a mild first half of the winter, that the ice has not thickened to normal levels. That is the case for rivers throughout Interior Alaska right now. River travel has been sketchy in spots.

The annual Nenana Ice Classic is Alaska’s longest running game of chance. Every year we guess the date & time the ice “goes out” on the Tanana River. Tickets for the 2019 event go on sale February 1.


The SS Nenana


The SS Nenana on The Yukon River

The SS Nenana is a steam powered, sternwheeler that was originally commissioned by the Alaska Railroad in 1932 for their Steamboat Service. Her parts were built in Seattle, then shipped north to Nenana, Alaska and assembled there. Named for the community where she was built, the SS Nenana first entered service in 1933.

The Nenana has five decks: cargo; passenger or saloon deck; boat deck, which housed the life boats; the Texas deck, which had cabins for the captain, crew and any VIP travelers, and topped off with the pilot house.


The SS Nenana pushing a barge

At 237′ long and 42′ wide, the Nenana had 22,000 square feet of deck space. She was built to handle passengers and freight, housing up to 50 passengers in 24 staterooms, and could haul 300 tons of cargo. A full load usually had a crew of 32 and a passenger list of 35. Completely loaded, the Nenana drew only 3’6″ of water.

From 1933 – 1954 she ran the Tanana & Yukon Rivers from May through September. Her main route was between Nenana and Marshall, which was 858 miles. The Nenana had one of the most advanced power systems of its time: twin, tandem 330 HP horizontal condensing engines. The engines could recycle 85% of the steam back into water, allowing the Nenana to be surprisingly quiet. She was powered originally by burning wood, and could store 230 cords of firewood on board. In 1948, the Nenana was converted to burn oil.

While traveling the Yukon River, the Nenana could push up to 6 barges. On the Tanana River, she was limited to only one barge, due to that river’s sharp turns.

During WWII, the Nenana was a vital part of the war effort. Between the massive military buildup within Alaska, and as aircraft and other equipment was ferried across the state on its way to Russia, the Nenana moved supplies for Galena Air Base and a host of other military outposts scattered along the Yukon River Basin.

By 1955, the SS Nenana was pushed out of the freight and passenger business by cheaper and faster means of transportation. Her story doesn’t end quite there, however.

Film footage courtesy of the University of Alaska Archives; photos courtesy of “Friends of SS Nenana”


The Saint Lawrence

Some pictures from September along the Saint Lawrence River:

Camera: Leica M3


The Harding Railcar


President Harding in Alaska on the presidential train

In 1923, Warren G. Harding became the first president to visit the Alaska Territory. Harding traveled by rail across the continental United States, then by ship to Seward, Alaska. The entourage traveled by rail once again to, what was then known as McKinley Park (Denali), followed by the short run north to Fairbanks. At the time, it was one of the longest trips ever taken by a sitting U.S. president.


President Harding driving the golden spike in Nenana. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover is one of the onlookers.

While in Alaska, Harding helped celebrate the completion of the Alaska Railroad, which runs between Seward and Fairbanks. Harding even drove in the “golden spike” at the stop in Nenana. Upon arrival in Fairbanks, city dignitaries were told that no Ford vehicles could be used in the motorcade. Speculation ran wild, but most likely it was due to rumors that Henry Ford may mount a presidential run himself.
President Harding gave a speech to 1500 Fairbanks residents in 94 degree heat. A reporter, Charlie Ross, who later served as press secretary to Harry Truman, cursed the White House staffers who advised the press to bring only warm clothing and long underwear.* It was Alaska, after all.

Harding and Company were originally scheduled to take the Richardson Trail back to Chitina, and then the Copper River & Northwestern (CR&NW) Railroad over to Cordova on Alaska’s southern coast.
Now that would have been a trip to write home about!
The Richardson at the time, was an unruly, rugged, mosquito infested track by all accounts, and the railway was affectionately known as “The Can’t Run & Never Will”. Sadly for history and adventure lovers everywhere, Harding’s “fatigue” forced the group to travel back to Seward they way they had come.


The Harding Railcar

One railcar from President Harding’s 1923 visit is located within Fairbanks’ Pioneer Park. It is a Pullman passenger car, and one of three that was in the presidential train. Built in 1905 in Chicago, the Pullman is also known as the Denali car, and carries the Alaska Railroad equipment number X-336. Purchased by the Alaska Railroad in 1923, it saw passenger service until 1945. It was restored in 1960 and given to the city of Fairbanks. It has been in Alaskaland/Pioneer Park since 1967.


The Denali Car

*The Anchorage Daily News


Fairbanks Weather Almanac


Pioneer Park in Fairbanks; or “Alaskaland”, as it is still referred to by the Sourdoughs

Data for 16 January 2019; information requested by RWS

High temp: -2F
Low temp: -19F

Average Daily high: 0F
Average Daily low: -16F

Record high: 52F
Record low: -58F

Sunrise: 10:25am
Sunset: 3:38pm
Length of day: 5 hours, 12 minutes

We saw a gain of 6 minutes of daylight from the previous day. We have gained roughly 34 minutes in the morning, and 57 minutes in the evening since the Winter Solstice.


Along the shores of Lake Erie

An early morning, September hike along the shoreline of Lake Erie.

Location: Rock Point Provincial Park; Camera: Leica M3; Film: Kodak 35mm Ektar 100


Know your out buildings

Comic courtesy of The Curator