All bets are on for Nenana Ice Classic

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The Kenai Three Bears is one of several stores on the Kenai Peninsula that sell tickets to the contest. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

A grocery list is a very individual thing. No two shoppers fill their carts in exactly the same way.

But between February 1 and April 5 each year, there’s one item that thousands of Alaskans all buy: tickets to the annual Nenana Ice Classic.

“You have those who buy it every year,” said Nicole Bittick, who works in customer service at the Three Bears store in Kenai. “We have a few people who are new to the state, so they’re like, ‘Oh, what is this?’ And they’re really drawn to that big red box and the tripod over there. We get to explain what’s going on, it’s really fun.

The Kenai store is one of the local ticket vendors for the ice cream classics. Each ticket is an estimate of when the ice on the Tanana River in Interior Alaska will break, moving the tripod planted inside the ice and stopping the clock inside.

Guessers had until Tuesday to guess exactly what date and minute they thought the clock would stop. And Bittick said some buyers took their guesses very seriously.

“Three hundred and sixty-four tickets,” she said. “That’s a lot. This is our biggest sale I’ve seen. That was just a few days ago.”

That’s over $900 in tickets. Each bet costs $2.50 and the money is split between a jackpot for the winners and several charities.

RELATED: John Oliver sends a man in a polar bear costume to Nenana and pledges $10,000 to the Food Bank of Alaska

At the Kenai store, there is an eye-catching red box near the front where people can drop their guesses. It’s one of more than 200 scattered around the state.

But the Alaskan tradition hasn’t always been so great. Ice Classic director Cherrie Forness said betting started more than a century ago as workers laid railway tracks on the frozen tributary.

“In the early 1900s, the state planned to build a railroad bridge over the Tanana River,” Forness said. “So some engineers who were investigating for this railroad bridge decided to bet on when they thought the Tanana River would break.”

In its first official year, the classic sold 800 tickets for one dollar each.

Today, the Nenana Ice Classic is a non-profit organization with dozens of employees.

When collecting tickets, Forness said, staff first weigh the more than 200 cans to assess how many tickets each contains.

“And then from there it goes to the sorters,” she said. “We’re hiring — I don’t know how many people we’ve hired this year. It’s probably close to 70 this year just for sorting.

From there, tickets are organized and then entered into a digital database. The staff prints this list and checks it with the tickets up to three times to make sure there are no mistakes, before putting the tickets on the shelves corresponding to their cans.

Once the ice is broken, staff check the database and find the cans with the correct times before removing and checking the paper tickets themselves.

It’s a big business. Forness works on the classic between November and June each year. She’s been doing it for 26 years. But this season will be his last.

“I love my job,” she said. “I really don’t want to retire. But it is time.

She said she likes to wait for the ice to come out every year and watch what happens to the tripod when it gives way.

“Sometimes it rocks,” she says. “Sometimes it floats to shore. Sometimes it floats just a little, downriver a little and gets stuck in an ice jam. It’s always different.

Forness does not yet know how many tickets they have sold this year. She gets a clue when she hears from the ticket agents that they need more. She said it had already happened this year.

“So it’s a good sign that ticket sales are going pretty well,” she said.

Once organizations know how many tickets they have sold, they pay their expenses and determine the jackpot. The jackpot in 2021 was $233,591.

Anything left over they send to charities and scholarships in Nenana and across the state. Forness said the money is going to basketball camps, food banks and public radio.

Bittick said she’s already sold a lot of tickets to Three Bears.

“Our store sold just over 1,000,” Bittick said. “1,040 tickets this year.”

The tickets were collected on Tuesday evening and then directed to Nenana for processing.

As for when the winners are announced – well, if we did, there wouldn’t really be any competition at all.

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