Arctic Adventures: Volume 12—Breakup—Part 1

Arctic Adventures: Volume 12—Breakup—Part 1

At the beginning of April, we had close to 2 feet of snow, some fresh. By mid-April, winter had conceded her reign. 

But before I get into this installment of Arctic Adventures, let me define the word “breakup.” Because before we visited Alaska, that term had a whole other meaning. (And I’m “breaking up” this post into 2 parts, because I realized I had too many pictures and observations to share). 

For Alaskans, breakup is the better word for spring. 

Quite literally, it refers to the ice of the rivers breaking up. The rivers freeze to a solid sheet, so thick vehicles can drive on it (Alaskans often use frozen rivers for easy winter access and transportation). As everything thaws, the ice separates into big slabs. It causes ice jams, and even some catastrophic flooding.

Nenana River in Glitter Gulch – April 24
Chena River in Fairbanks – April 20
Riley Creek in Denali National Park – May 2

Breakup season is such a big deal that there’s a competition surrounding it: the Nenana Ice Classic! 

Nenana Ice Classic, a tradition since 1917

People take guesses on the date and time the Tanana River ice will break up at Nenana. When the ice betting pool began in the early 1900s, a handful of railroad workers took guesses and whoever came closest won about $800. Nowadays, you absolutely need to guess the exact day and time down to the minute, and typically share winnings with others. In 2014, the jackpot was $363,627, split by 25 people, each winning $14,545 before taxes. The pot was only $125,000 this year, due to virus-related low ticket sales. The proceeds from the charitable lottery fund scholarships, sports and local charities. 

A history of all the guesses

The way they mark its breaking point is to raise a huge tripod on the same spot on the iced over river each year in March. We actually attended the “tripod raising” on Sunday, March 8 (three days before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic mind you). It was quite uneventful, but you gotta do it once in your Alaskan life. 

The four-legged, 26-foot tripod sits 300 feet from shore for weeks and once the measurements gets to about 30 inches, they set up a 24-hour watch person in a nearby tower. Plus, they tether the tripod to a clock, which stops once the ice goes out. 

Since my uncle and aunt have lived in Fairbanks since I was born, I’ve known about—and participated from afar—in the Ice Classic lottery long before moving here. My uncle would ask for our guesses and buy tons of $2.50 tickets. He’s never won, and only came close once. I’ve pretty much stuck to my “May 6 at 2:26pm” date and time my whole life. This year was no different. Justin’s guess was May 9 at 4:22pm. And Justin’s mom bought 2 tickets for a few days in May as well. 

For as harsh as a winter we had, spring came fast and hard, and the ice officially went out at April 27 at 12:56pm Alaska Standard Time, quite a bit earlier than our guesses.The earliest river breakup was actually last year (2019 was Alaska’s warmest winter on record) on April 14 at 12:21am. The latest breakup was May 20, while the average date is May 5.

The Tanana River at Nenana usually freezes in the late fall, but its peak thickness can be more than 40 inches.

The Tanana River at Nenana in November
The Tanana River at Nenana in November
The Tanana River at Nenana in November
Here’s the Nenana further downstream and closer to Denali National Park in January.
Here’s the Nenana further downstream and closer to Denali National Park in January.
Here’s the Nenana further downstream and closer to Denali National Park in January.
And here’s the Nenana in April during breakup. 
And here’s the Nenana in April during breakup. 

It’s been so fun to watch the rivers through the seasons. One more reason for us to love Alaska! 

One response to “Arctic Adventures: Volume 12—Breakup—Part 1”

  1. misti says:

    Wow, that’s interesting history and lore! I guess you’ve gotta keep things interesting in the great white north!

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