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Thursday, February 1, 2024

February 1, 2024: Quirky American Traditions: Nenana Ice Classic

[In honor of the very strange ritual that is Groundhog Day, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such quirky and fun traditions, including Phil himself on Friday. I’d love to hear about quirky traditions you’d highlight in comments!]

On what a unique Alaskan tradition tells us about both Alaska and tradition.

The annual contest in which participants bet on the exact day and time that ice will break up on the Tanana River near the small community of Nenana, Alaska developed in a few distinct stages. It started very informally in 1906, with six locals forming a betting pool and the winner getting treated to a couple drinks at the local bar. It was revived a decade later in 1916 on a larger but still local scale, with railroad workers and other Nenana residents buying tickets at Jimmy Duke’s Roadhouse. And when the word was spread by railroad workers across the region, the 1917 contest was opened to all residents of both the Alaska and Yukon territories. That 1917 contest is the one that the official website highlights as the contest’s genuine origin point, and it has been run every year since, with the original betting pool of $800 reaching nearly half a million dollars in some recent years (and over $200,000 in the 2023 edition). The technology involved in determining the precise moment when the ice breaks up has also evolved significantly over that century, as this local news story details.

One of the most important but complicated things for any AmericanStudier to try to wrap their head around is just how big and multi-part this nation of ours is, with every state featuring some pretty distinct layers and contexts that have helped shape its identity and community and that it contributes to the whole of the U.S. as a result. I believe that’s genuinely true for every state, but as I discovered during my one visit to Alaska in the summer of 2005, I’d say Alaska is one of the most distinct and unique of all 50 states (perhaps only rivalled by the one territory which gained statehood later, Hawai’i). Part of Alaska’s uniqueness is unquestionably due to its natural landscapes, an environment utterly different from anywhere else in the United States and one primarily defined by ice (although I’m sad to think about how much that has changed in recent years). And part is due to the way in which a great deal of the territory and state have been constituted by migratory communities, both individuals and broader cohorts like railroad workers (all, of course, alongside Alaska’s indigenous communities). We can see all those layers to Alaska’s story and identity in the Nenana Ice Classic, both its existence and how it evolved to become the annual tradition it remains.

This whole blog series has focused on such distinctive local traditions, but I hope has also offered windows to consider the overarching concept of tradition and how it is created, how it evolves, and how it works in a society (all topics about which I learned a great deal from one of my favorite scholarly books, Michael Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory). In the case of the Nenana Ice Classic in particular, I’d say that we can see how a tradition can be at once quite genuinely connected to key aspects of its local community (as I argued above) and yet thoroughly constructed over time, constructions driven as likely always by a combination of more cynical factors like tourism and capitalism and more sentimental ones like fun and community pride. One thing I try really hard not to be is the kind of scholar who leans so far into the cynicism or even the analysis that I lose sight of those latter factors, and so I’ll end this post with something I’d say for each and every entry in the series: I’d love the chance to be at an event like the Nenana Ice Classic, preferably with my sons and other loved ones, and to enjoy this unique tradition for all that it is.

Last quirky tradition tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other traditions you’d highlight?

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