Spectators use a rope to hold the Nenana Ice Classic tripod in place on March 3, 2013, on the Tanana River near Nenana. Photo by Jeff Richardson, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
FAIRBANKS — Call it Nenana’s version of a barn raising.
Each March, dozens of visitors and locals congregate on the frozen Tanana River, grab a rope and pull. Foot by foot, they hoist a black-and-white striped tripod into a trench in the ice, where it immediately becomes Alaska’s most closely watched piece of driftwood.
The annual Tripod Days event in Nenana, which ended Sunday, included a bit of everything — dance competitions, a moose call event, banana-eating contest and a tug-o-war. Vendors line the Civic Center in Nenana, selling homemade jam, baby clothes and more.
But it was all simply a buildup to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, the moment when a new tripod emerged on the river near the Parks Highway community. It’ll remain there for about two months, when breakup arrives and the tripod is washed downstream.
For nearly a century, that event has been tied to a unique guessing game, with the signature red Nenana Ice Classic scattered throughout the state. Thousands of Alaskans buy tickets guessing the exact moment when the tripod will tumble into the Tanana. The winning guess is worth $300,000 or so.
Those sort of stakes add an extra dose of meaning to Tripod Days, attracting visitors from Fairbanks, Healy and beyond.
“We’ve got a good turnout from all over this year,” said Ice Classic manager Cherrie Forness. “Lots of people come out and join in the festivities.”
Jeff Mayrand has been in charge of tripod construction for more than a decade. He started hacking a trench in the ice with his Stihl chainsaw on Thursday, steadily digging a 2-foot-deep hole. After it’s hoisted into the trench, water is poured in, which will freeze and hold the tripod solidly upright.
Mayrand builds the tripod each July from spruce trees on his small farm near Nenana, peeling off the bark and applying a few coats of the signature paint. He said it’s a satisfying job, even though the pay is modest and his tripods are a temporary part of the landscape.
“Most of them are never seen again,” Mayrand said with a smile. “The joke is there’s some trapper 100 miles downstream that’s living in a black-and-white striped cabin.”
After Mayrand hammered the last stake into the tripod on Sunday, the surrounding crowd paused a few seconds before realizing the job was complete and letting out a cheer.
Let the Classic begin.