Not surprisingly, even the 103 year old Nenana Ice Classic has seen some changes this year due to Covid-19. Every year, since 1917, Alaskans have been betting on when the ice would go out on the Tanana River at the village of Nenana.
The Ice Classic time schedule
The earliest the ice has gone out was last year, when the famed tripod tripped the clock at 12:21 am on April 14. The latest the ice has gone out was on May 20, which has happened twice.
As one can see from the above graph, 2019 was an anomaly for more than one reason. The ice rarely goes out between midnight and 9am.
Image from the Nenana Ice Cam on April 7.
As of April 6, ice thickness near the tripod was 32.5″. Usually, all guesses/tickets must be in before April 6, but the deadline has been extended to April 10. We usually buy the tickets at various venues that have the bright red Ice Classic Can on their counter, the filled out tickets are then dropped in the can. This year, since so many businesses are closed, and people are urged to stay at home, guesses can be mailed to the Nenana Ice Classic directly. Entries must be postmarked no later than April 10, 2020. Each guess/ticket is $2.50.
I have never missed an Ice Classic since I moved to Fairbanks, and this year joined the stay at home club, and mailed in my guesses. Last year’s jackpot was $311,652.
When in Naknek, I spent as much time as I could down by the water. Hiking along the shore of the Naknek River was a favorite way to spend my off time. The ice pack was solid enough to keep me from sinking too much in my mukluks, so I hiked as far as time allowed.
The hiking was peaceful, with the slow movement of ice down the river, and the constant flying of ducks, as they skimmed just above the water, their beating wings making small ripples on the glass like surface.
It was an overcast morning when we crossed over the Naknek River for South Naknek. People were still using the ice road, but word was out that time was short. It would turn out that businesses were in a rush to get heavy equipment across ASAP.
The temperature had warmed up, but it was the tide that had the final word for the ice road. High tides had been increasing substantially, as the higher water pushes up against the ice, these huge pressure ridges grew. Some went right across the ice road, which limited access to anything without clearance. I saw no Subarus crossing with us.
An available home in S. Naknek
Of my time spent in the region, I enjoyed my day in South Naknek the most. We picked up a couple of locals for guides, and we had an absolute blast exploring the southern side of the river. We were welcomed by everyone we met, and had more than one offer to help us out if we wanted to move to the area.
I would love to come back to the region in the summer, but I can honestly say I’d want to spend my time on the south side of the Naknek River. It’s a much more relaxed way of life here, and we were told that the huge influx of crowds to Naknek & King Salmon do not hit the southern side. One can still meander down the river’s edge, fishing as you go, enjoying the solitude that Alaska is suppose to be about.
The canneries have all closed up shop in South Naknek. The killing blow came when a road was built between King Salmon & Naknek. It no longer made financial sense to process salmon from the southern side. Grant Aviation still makes daily flights, weather permitting, to South Naknek, and they have a really nice airstrip.
Driving across the Naknek River
The skies cleared well before noon, and we had absolutely beautiful weather as we traveled throughout South Naknek and the surrounding area. The Alaska days were already getting longer, and the sun had regained some of the power that we had been missing during the winter months.
Now that Covid-19 has us all hunkered down, it’s hard not to wonder if I should have taken that job offer I had after one day in South Naknek. Regardless, I can not wait for the rivers to open up, and for winter’s grip to be pried from the land.
By the way, it was -24F at the cabin on Monday morning. Not too hard to figure out why I’m getting a bit stir crazy, surrounded by nothing but snow. At 4pm, the temp had risen to +26F: A fifty degree swing. “Springtime” in Alaska.
Naknek sits along the shore of the Naknek River, where the river flows into Kvichak Arm of Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay is Alaska’s famed salmon waters. It is the world’s most productive salmon fishery. Naknek is home to both Trident and Peter Pan Seafoods, among many others.
Hiking along the shore of the Naknek River
Naknek lies less than 20 road miles from King Salmon, which is also on the Naknek River. It’s definitely fishing country, with over 75% of the jobs in fisheries.
When we visited, the town had only begun to get ready for the fishing season. Many were worried about what the Corvid-19 virus was going to do to the industry. At the time, Alaska had no known cases of the virus, but Washington State was already a hotbed. Many summer workers come up from Washington every year. Concerns were rampant, and not unexpected.
The nightlife hotspot of Naknek
The community was welcoming and open about their unique lifestyle on Bristol Bay. Naknek has a population of less than 600 in the winter months, but explodes to around 15,000 during the summer. I have always wanted to visit the area in the summer, it must be absolutely beautiful. The sockeye runs are a major temptation, but I simply could not imagine so many people in such a confined space as Naknek. There is a nearby alternative, but more on that in a future post.
Ryan Redington comes into the village of Ruby, Alaska; Photo credit: ADN/Loren Holmes
Due to the coronavirus scare, about the only sporting event still taking place in the United States is the Iditarod sled dog race. Interestingly, the Iditarod commemorates the 1925 Nome Serum Run.
Known at the time as the Great Race of Mercy, the race against time stands alongside the Good Friday Earthquake as one of Alaska’s defining moments.
Curtis Welch was the only doctor in Nome in the autumn of 1924. He had placed an order for diphtheria antitoxin, but it had not arrived by the time the port was entombed in winter ice. In January of 1925, Welch had diagnosed the first case of diphtheria.
His pleading telegram to the outside world read as follows:
An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP
With the area population around 10,000, and close to 100% mortality rate, the situation was dire. After the 1917 influenza, in which half the native population perished, time was of the essence.
Nome, Alaska circa 1916
The mail route between Nenana and Nome was 674 miles. The only diphtheria antitoxin was in Anchorage. The antitoxin was put on the Alaska Railroad to Nenana and then hauled west by dogsled. The rural Alaskan mail carriers were the best dog mushers in the State, and the vast majority were Athabaskan. “Wild Bill” Shannon was the first musher to take the serum from Nenana. The temperature was -50F when he left Nenana with a team of 11 dogs. When Shannon reached the village of Minto at 3am, it was -60F, and Wild Bill was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.
The serum went from relay team to relay team. At times, the serum was brought into various roadhouses to warm up. One musher at Manley Hot Springs had the roadhouse operator pour hot water over his hands so that they could be broken free of his sled’s handle bars. It was -56F.
By January 30, a fifth death, and 27 cases of diphtheria had occurred in Nome. Plans were made to fly serum in, but they were rejected by the Navy and experienced pilots because of the weather. The relay went on.
Leonhard Seppala left Nome for Shaktoolik to take his place in the relay. He faced gale force winds and -85F wind chill. His lead dog Togo traveled 350 miles in total.
Henry Ivanoff’s team was tangled up with a reindeer.
Charlie Olson took the serum from Seppala, his team was blown off course by the winds. He passed the serum to Gunnar Kaasen in Bluff, AK. Kaassen waited for the weather to improve, but it only became worse, so he set out into a nasty headwind. His lead dog was Balto. Kaassen could barely see the first two dogs in front of his sled because of the blowing snow, but Balto led the team through high drifts, river overflow and heavy winds. At one point, a gust of wind flipped the sled. The serum was thrown into the snow, and Kaassen’s hands were frostbit trying to recover the cylinder of serum.
In spite of the hardships, Kaassen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule. The next man up, Ed Rohn, was sleeping, so Kaassen and his team led by Balto continued on. They arrived in Nome at 5:30am. The relay of dog teams traveled the 674 miles in 127-1/2 hours. Not one vial of serum had been broken.
Gunnar Kaassen and Balto
For the first time since the Last Great Race first ran, mushers this year are not being allowed into villages due to coronavirus concerns. Checkpoints are in tents out on rivers away from communities. Spectators have been told not to show up in Nome to cheer as teams cross under the famed burled arch on Front Street.
If nothing else, 1925 shows us how vital it is to step up and come together at a time of crisis.
We needed a ride across the Ninglick River to the new townsite of Mertarvik. So the word went out, and by morning we had a couple of offers of snow machine rides. I also had received an offer to guide us the nine miles across by foot. Of our little troupe, I was the only one who was intrigued by this, although I had one guy who said, “If you’re walking to Mertarvik, I sure as hell won’t let you be the only one!” In the end, lack of time overcame intense desire, and I hitched a ride on the back of a snow machine.
The snow machine trail back to Newtok
Thirty minutes later, I was dropped off at the Tundra View Lodge. Within fifteen minutes my partner in crime arrived, and we set off to explore the new location for Newtok.
The Tundra View Lodge
People started to move across to Mertarvik from Newtok in October of last year. First in line were the people who were displaced or very soon to be displaced, either by the melting permafrost or the river erosion. Approximately twenty-two homes have been completed in Mertarvik, along with an evacuation center that currently houses the school.
In the evacuation center, I talked with an elder on the move from her traditional home. She told me that she had cried for weeks leading up to the move, and the first few days in the new location. But after a week or so in Mertarvik, she no longer wanted to go back to Newtok. This was home now, and it was time to move forward. The upcoming weekend had an area wide basketball tournament at the Newtok gym, the elder confessed to me that her granddaughter was playing, but she didn’t even want to cross the river for that!
Toksook Bay traveling basketball team
Since the planes were not flying between the villages due to high winds, the basketball teams from around Nelson Island headed over to Newtok by snow machine. I believe this is the Toksook Bay team, as they took a break on the edge of Mertarvik, before taking on the final nine miles to Newtok. Toksook Bay is approximately 59 miles, as the caribou plods, from Newtok.
Mertarvik, looking back across the river towards Newtok
The move across the Ninglick River has been 20 years in the making for the villagers of Newtok. A lot of challenges remain, and the move for the remaining people of the village will still be a long and slow process, but the residents here are a hardy bunch.