March Madness in Nenana, Alaska

Healthy Living with Carl Hendrickson


By Carl Hendrickson, For the Call

March equals a time of madness. No, I am not referring to basketball. I am referring to the Nenana Ice Classic.

My father was a gambling man. No, not a professional gambler. But upon retirement in Arizona, he enjoyed going to Las Vegas several times a year to try his luck. We even had a family reunion in Vegas. I flew out from St. Louis. My mother, siblings, aunts, uncle and cousin would come from the Southwest, West and Midwest. No one got rich, but it was an enjoyable time.   

Years before when my parents, siblings and I lived in the territory of Alaska my dad participated in Alaska’s guessing game, the Nenana Ice Classic. This is one of the oldest continually betting events in the country. The guessing game officially began in 1917.

Nenana is a city in Alaska 55 miles southwest of Fairbanks. It is situated by the Tanana River. Each year since 1917 residents would guess — month, day, hour, minute —when the ice on the river would break up. The funds raised from the ice classic would be split between the correct guessers and various non-profit organizations.

Guessing begins Feb. 1 and runs until early April. The river freeze-up begins in the fall and continues through the winter reaching an average maximum thickness of almost 3.5 feet. The ice breaks up in late April or early May. 

The madness for my father began in March. Guesses would be made based upon expected ice thickness, air temperature, amount of snow cover, and water temperature. It was not very scientific, and all these factors could change in a month or two. 

A tripod, connected to an on-shore clock with a string, is planted in 2 feet of river ice during freeze-up in the fall. In spring, when the river ice begins to break apart, the tripod falls, pulling the string which stops the clock. The time, minute and second, with month and day, establish the winner or winners.   

My father never was a winner the eight winters I spent in Alaska. But, with the long winter months, the below freezing temperatures, the days with little sunshine and much darkness, this guessing game was a welcome madness.  

The Nenana Ice Classic has continued to this day, and I am sure many Alaskans are enjoying this form of March madness and guessing when the ice on the Tanana River will break up.