FAIRBANKS - Tickets for Alaska's oldest and richest game of chance have gone on sale. That means Alaskans will have until April 5 to guess when the ice will break up on the Tanana River and trip the tripod at the small Interior community of Nenana.
The Nenana Ice Classic, which had a $335,000 jackpot last year, also is a major fund raiser for the community it's named after.
Ice Classic Manager Cherri Forness recently loaded up a large Chevrolet Suburban pulling a covered trailer with 105 bright red ticket cans for a six-day, 2,000-mile road trip to Anchorage, the Mat-Su and the Kenai Peninsula.
"It looks like an outhouse," she said. "We load it up with cans and away we go. It's a process."
Another 60 cans were delivered earlier to Fairbanks and North Pole. The remaining 60 or so cans were mailed to vendors in Juneau and elsewhere around the state several weeks ago, Forness said.
Now in its 85th year, the Nenana Ice Classic has become something of an institution in Alaska.
The game of chance provides residents with a chance for a payout that dwarfs the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend check.
Residents pay $2 a ticket to guess exactly what time a log tripod planted on the Tanana River ice will move downriver, an event usually occurring in late April or early May.
Last year, the tripod stopped the clock on May 1 at 10:47 a.m. There were 18 winning ticket holders, each of whom was paid $18,611.
Forness is hoping this year's jackpot will be even bigger. She thinks the unusually mild weather will work in the Ice Classic's favor.
"I think it will spur interest," Forness said. "I've noticed in previous years that when the weather is abnormal, ticket sales are higher."
This winter has been one of the warmest on record in Alaska's Interior. The area has yet to endure any kind of prolonged cold snap and temperatures have dipped to 30 degrees below zero only once.
Forness isn't sure what effect the warm temperatures will have on river ice. It's thicker this year than last year at this time, she said.
The ice measured 34.5 inches on Jan. 16, the first official measurement of the year. That compares with 31 inches on Jan. 23 of last year.
"But there's no snow, so there's nothing insulating the ice," Forness said.
The earliest the ice has gone out is 3:27 p.m. on April 20, 1940, and the latest breakup recorded in the 85-year history of the event was 11:41 a.m. on May 20, 1964.