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Perhaps Japan's cherry blossoms hold key to Nenana Ice Classic

Posted: Friday, March 29, 2002

NENANA (AP) -- The bloom of cherry blossoms in Japan has influenced at least one Nenana Ice Classic prediction.

Nenana Mayor Jason Mayrand made his guess after having lunch Wednesday with Nenana Ice Classic Secretary Rhonda Coghill. Coghill told Mayrand the ice's thickness measured near the tripod on Sunday was 50.8 inches, the same as it was on the corresponding date in 1994. The river broke up on April 29 that year.

Then Coghill heard on the news that the cherry blossoms were blooming early in Japan this year -- as they did in 1953 -- signaling a possible flow of warm air from Asia. She found that breakup occurred on April 29 in 1953.

''That's about as scientific as anybody else's guess,'' Mayrand said.

But Dennis Argall, one of the seven Ice Classic board members, disagrees.

He thinks breakup will come in May because there's not much snow to melt and produce the water that normally pushes the ice along to move the tripod enough to stop the clock.

''But what if it rains?'' Coghill asked, testing Argall's theory.

What if, what if...

''It's fun to talk about it and figure out weird things,'' Coghill said while sorting money and checks at the Classic office Wednesday.

For 86 years, people have been using scientific theories, children's birthdays, anniversary dates or simply guessing the exact moment the tripod will move enough to pull the string that signals the breakup of the Tanana River at Nenana. The contest started in 1917 when railroad engineers bet $800 to guess when breakup would occur.

Coghill said the office located on the small town's main street will get inundated with people asking for measurements or what the river looks like around the tripod when the weather warms up. The office is located a few blocks away from the tripod.

''We talk about it a lot,'' said Ice Classic Manager Cherrie Forness.

They use a brochure to help answer those questions. In it is a graph that shows the frequency of breakup at different hours of the day. There's also a calendar from April 20 to May 22, each day listing the years and times that won.

''When you get 50 to 60 calls asking how the ice looks compared to last year, you kind of memorize this,'' Coghill said.

But some are better at guessing than others.

Almost 100 people, including one gentleman who sent in four guesses, thought the tripod would fall on April 31. There is no such date.

There's not much science to the contest other than the ice melts on top because of warm weather and from the bottom because of water flow.

The tripod -- which is actually a quad-pod with four legs instead of three for support -- stands roughly 300 feet from shore just outside the train depot at the end of Nenana's main street.

It's constructed each year to be 26 feet tall, then set 18 inches into the ice. Once breakup occurs, the black and white logs of the tripod will be swept down the Tanana River with the ice chunks.

Argall said he's seen the remnants of the tripod as far down as 30 miles.

''Plus there's a rumor there's a cabin down the river that's black and white,'' Argall joked.

On Tuesday, Argall will climb a rickety ladder and string a wire from the top of the tripod to a watch tower. It's his 15th year working on the Classic and, as Coghill said, he doesn't like climbing the ladder because of its instability.

''It seemed it used to be hard work, but it's not that hard,'' Argall said. ''The most technical part is wiring up the line and setting the clock. The clock is pretty precise.''

Then, later, just before it gets too dangerous to go out on the river because of the impending breakup, he'll set up the clock that will record the exact minutes and seconds the tripod topples over and stops the clock.

Last year, the tripod fell over, but failed to stop the clock until a few days later at 1 p.m. May 8 making eight tickets winners.

''All we have to do is make sure everything holds together and Mother Nature will take care of the rest,'' Mayrand said.

To hold things together in the office, the office of two will become one of 140 on April 8 as help pours in to sort, count and record the guesses that will filter in from Prudhoe Bay to Ketchikan after the April 5 deadline. They've gotten guesses and money in the mail from a $2 bet up to 240 tickets for one pool.

The red Ice Classic cans will be weighed to estimate how many tickets are entered. Then the staff will enter the guesses into computers next door at the Nenana Community Center. They'll be compiled and published in a book to be sent out to the different ticket agents statewide. Last year's book has 1,450 pages of guesses.

Forness said it will take about a day and a half before she'll be able to gauge how well this year's Classic went. Forness said the Classic board will then decide how much of the money brought in will be put toward the winnings. The percentage usually runs right around 50 percent. Last year's winners split a $308,000 jackpot.

But until then, the staff will be busy fielding phone calls and e-mails from around the world asking what the ice looks like.

This year, Coghill and Forness said the ice looks ugly and rotten around the tripod.

''The weather's been kind of odd this year,'' Coghill said.

Forness, who's been the Classic's manager for the last six years, said, ''The weather has been odd the last three years.''

As usual, it's anybody's guess.

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Distributed by The Associated Press



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