Behind the Ice Classic

I received a request for more behind the ice information regarding the Classic.


The Nenana Ice Classic Tripod on the Tanana River

In 1906, six gentlemen bet on the date the ice would go out on the Tanana River. The contest returned in 1917, when railroad engineers bet $801 on the date. The contest has been held every year since then, and has become an Alaskan tradition.

The tripod, is technically a quad pod. It’s made out of local logs and weighs several hundred pounds. A trough is dug in the ice for the tripod base to sit in, then a hole is bored through to allow river water to fill the trough and freeze the base in place.

Now things get really cool, but keep in mind the system was designed by railroad engineers in the early 1900’s.


The Ice Classic cleaver

A cable is fastened to the tripod, and four ropes run from the cable to a tower on the shoreline. The main rope runs through a pulley system that connects to a barrel weighted with several hundred pounds of rocks at the base of the tower. When the ice starts to move, this rope takes all of the stress and lifts the barrel of rocks several feet into the air.

A second rope has a foot of slack. This one triggers a siren in the town of Nenana to signal that the ice has started to move.

The third rope runs to a cleaver. This one has a bit more slack. The cleaver has been weighted, and also has over the years gained the nickname “Eldridge”. Named after the one time Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver. However, Fred Mueller of Nenana, who designed this elegant system way back in the day, said he received his inspiration for the cleaver from the guillotine.*

When the tripod moves 100 feet, the rope to “Eldridge” pulls a pin, the cleaver is released, cutting the main rope. The counterweight crashes to the ground, and the tripod is free to float down the river.


The Official Ice Classic Chronometer

Once the main rope is cut, it falls pulling the final line, which is attached to a copper wire on the clock. The clock is then tripped, after the tripod moves 100 feet downstream, signifying the winning time.

There are actually two mechanical clocks. The one pictured here, which is a ship’s chronometer, was manufactured by the Elgin National Watch Company – which stopped making clocks in 1967 – needs to be wound once a day. The second, back up clock, needs to be wound only once every eight days.


A closeup of “Eldridge”

Photos and *behind the scenes credit: Dermot Cole/ADN, as well as other local sources

About icefogger

Just a basic, down to Earth, laid back type of guy here, who loves the outdoors, the indoors, jazz on the turntable, a fire in the woodstove, the northern lights blazing across the sky, and the company of good friends. View all posts by icefogger

3 responses to “Behind the Ice Classic

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