Watchers keep eyes on Tanana River

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Percy Duyck spends most of his time watching geese and sandhill cranes fly over the Nenana Ice Classic watchtower he occupies eight hours a day. He plays a lot of solitaire, too, and listens to the radio.

''There's a TV here, but I don't turn it on,'' said Duyck, one of three watchpersons who have been staffing the small shack on the bank of the Tanana River 24 hours a day since Saturday.

The three are paid to keep an eye on the Tanana River ice and make sure no one monkeys with the wire connecting a clock in the watchtower to a 30-foot, black-and-white, wooden tripod anchored in the ice about 100 yards offshore. When the tripod moves far enough downstream, the wire stops the clock, signalling the official arrival of breakup in the Interior.

It also means a hefty check for those who correctly predicted the date and time the clock would stop in what has become Alaska's richest lottery. This year's jackpot is $308,000.

But so far there hasn't been much to look at except for lots of geese flying overhead, along with a few cranes and trumpeter swans. On Tuesday, Duyck was treated to a late-season snowstorm.

''The river is still all white,'' Duyck reported. ''I don't see any open holes. There's a little water by the docks, but it doesn't have any current to it.''

Despite the fact the ice on the Nenana River, which flows into the Tanana River about a quarter-mile downstream from the tripod, went out a week ago, the ice on the Tanana River has shown no sign of budging. Typically the ice on the Tanana goes out a week to 10 days after the Nenana. That may not be the case this year.

''The last two days I've been saying five to seven days, and it looks like it's going to be at least that long,'' said Duyck, who has been serving as a watchman for the last 20 years. ''If it stays like this, I don't see nothing happening for a while.''

A channel of water has opened about a mile upstream of the tripod, beyond the Alaska Railroad bridge that crosses the river, Ice Classic manager Cherri Forness said. But she doesn't anticipate breakup anytime soon ''unless something drastic happens.''

''It looks pretty solid,'' Forness said.

The National Weather Service in Fairbanks is forecasting cooler than normal temperatures for the next week, which could further prolong the rotting of the ice.

''We can expect below-normal temperatures the first 10 days of May,'' said meteorologist Anton Prechtel.

Highs will be in the mid-40s and lows will be in the mid 20s, about five to 10 degrees cooler than average.

Though this year's breakup will be the latest at least since 1996, when the ice went out on May 5, the ice commonly goes out in the first or second week of May. Last year the ice went out at 10:47 a.m. on May 1.

Based on Ice Classic history, May 5 and May 8 are the most likely remaining dates the ice will move. The ice has gone out seven times on both those dates, ranking them No. 2 on the Classic's list of most common breakup dates, along with April 29.

The No. 1 date on the list is April 30. The ice has gone out nine times on that date.

The latest breakup recorded in the Ice Classic is May 20 in 1964.

On Tuesday, Duyck entertained himself by crumbling up a leftover ham sandwich and watching a gang of ravens attack it.

''I put it out and one raven flew over and circled three times before it landed about 50 feet away. It made a half circle and took off,'' Duyck said. ''Pretty soon here came about 20 of them. They landed a little ways away and did their little dance.''

Then one of the ravens picked up a little piece of the sandwich and the rest of the pack quickly joined in the feast, he said. The scene intrigued the 72-year-old Native.

''When they come and see something like that they don't just drop right in and grab it,'' Duyck said. ''They check it out first.''

Another day in Nenana, just sitting on the dock of the river watching time pass away. -

On the net: -

(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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