The ice has gone out on the Tanana River in Nenana, Alaska. Officially, the tripod moved enough downstream to trip the clock at 12:50 AST on April 30. The jackpot for the 2021 Nenana Ice Classic is $233,591.
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The Nenana Ice Classic:
The Nenana Ice Classic tripod was raised on the Tanana River this past weekend. The Ice Classic is our annual event, where residents and visitors can guess when the ice goes out on the Tanana. This is the 104th year of the event. Tickets are $2.50 per guess. The ice thickness as of Sunday was 44-1/2″.
The 2021 Iditarod:
The Last Great Race is seeing a lot of changes for Covid-2021. The race will not end at Nome this year, due to Covid concerns. In fact, to protect villagers, mushers will not be venturing into communities like in a normal year. Due to the new route, which is now an 850 mile long loop, teams will race to the ghost town of Flat, and return to Willow.
There was no ceremonial start in Anchorage this year. The 46 mushers and their teams went directly to Willow for the Sunday morning start time. Press accounts have the crowd at starting line at 300 visitors, mostly family and dog handlers. In a normal year, there would be at least 6000 cheering the teams on.
The ice went out on the Tanana River at the village of Nenana on Monday. The tripod officially moved the distance to trip the clock at 1:56pm.
This was the second time that I have guessed the correct day the ice went out. I was so close, so tantalizingly close. As they say, close only counts in horseshoes and bear encounters.
Between the years of 1917 and 1989, the ice went out this early only three times. Since 1990, the ice has gone out this early 11 times.
Ice Classic officials say it may be a month before winners are notified and announced. They are running a skeleton crew due to Corvid-19. They have also stated that the number of tickets sold are well below normal numbers due to the difficulty after the virus forced businesses to close.
Images credit: Nenana Ice Cam
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The picture was taken the last day of March. I have never seen The Pond with as much bad ice this early. The open hole is from methane release, which caused the ice to thin just above the methane pocket.
The Nenana River has some open water already, downstream from the Ice Classic Tripod. The earliest the Tanana River has gone out is April 20. Short of an epic cold snap, that record will be broken in 2019.
The Mears Memorial Bridge was completed on 27 February 1923. The 700 foot long truss bridge spans the Tanana River at Nenana, Alaska. The bridge was the final link in the Alaska Railroad.
The bridge is named after Colonel Frederick Mears, the chief engineer and chairman of the Alaska Engineering Commission, the builder of the railroad and its original operator. In 1923, the Mears Bridge was the longest truss span in the United States and its territories. It spans the longest distance of any bridge in Alaska, and is still the third longest simple truss bridge in the U.S..
The tripod was raised for the 100th time on the Tanana River Sunday, kicking off the 2016 edition of the Nenana Ice Classic.
That first year, 1917, the jackpot was $801. The largest jackpot came in 2014 when it hit $363,627. On average, 290,000 guesses are made each year. You have until April 5 to make your pick. As of March 1, the river ice was 40″ thick where the tripod now stands.
The Nenana Ice Classic tripod on the Tanana River tipped over on Thursday, but only traveled 50′, which did not trigger the timer to stop. It wasn’t until Friday at 2:25 pm AST, that the tripod traveled down river the necessary 100 feet, triggering the end of the 2015 Ice Classic.
This year was the 6th earliest breakup of the river ice, since the Classic began in 1917. The jackpot is $330,330.00 for guessing the correct date and time. Preliminary reports show there are multiple winners.
I will not be one of them, since I was a day and two and a half dollars short. I guess I still have to paint that house this week.
Tickets to the Nenana Ice Classic for 2015 go on sale today. Look for the red tin at fine, upstanding establishments throughout the state. Pick the date and time you expect the tripod to move on the Tanana River ice, and if you are correct in your guess, the long lost relatives will come-a-calling. Tickets cost $2.50/guess and are available through April 5.
Good luck, and safe ice.
Poster courtesy of the Nenana Ice Classic