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FAIRBANKS - The 86th annual Nenana Ice Classic is officially under way, now that a familiar structure is in place on the frozen Nenana River.
On Sunday, dozens of people helped erect a 26-foot-high tripod that will determine the winners when it shifts 100 feet downriver, tripping a clock on shore.
Alaskans and people from Outside pay $2 a ticket to predict when the ice breaks up on the Nenana River. The winners take home a pot that totaled $308,000 last year and $335,000 the year before.
Tickets went on sale Feb. 1.
The tradition - the closest thing Alaska has to a state lottery - began in 1917 when bored railroad engineers decided to place bets on when the ice would break up on the river.
There may very well be no one but one lonely attendant around the day the contest ends, but Nenana was mobbed with hundreds of spectators all weekend to celebrate the start of the Classic. The James A. Coghill Community Center was crammed with vendors, contests and performances.
Cherrie Forness, who is in her sixth year of managing the Nenana Ice Classic, said this is generally the busiest time of year in the tiny Parks Highway town 60 miles south of Fairbanks.
"It's gotten a lot bigger," she told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "They've had good turnouts in the past, but we've had excellent ones the last few years."
About 100 people braved a stiff breeze on the Nenana to watch the tripod - it actually has four legs - go up shortly after 3 p.m. Sunday. The tripod, made of Nenana spruce, has to be built anew every year since the structure collapses and floats downriver after breakup.
"Somewhere downriver, there's 85 other tripods. Every now and then, pieces pop up," said Jason Mayrand, mayor of Nenana.
The structure was built last summer and stood on the south bank of the river until Thursday, when Jeff Coghill and helpers transported it to a spot 300 feet offshore.
Getting the structure upright proved a smooth process. With 30 spectators pulling on a rope and another dozen or so holding a stabilizing rope, a section of the tripod was hoisted into place, sliding into a large cross-shaped depression carved into the 51-inch thick Nenana River ice.
Tickets for the Classic can be bought until midnight on April 5. At least 50 percent of the proceeds go to the winners. Other proceeds go toward operating costs and the rest goes to a variety of charitable causes.