ANCHORAGE (AP) — Tom Waters saves all year to indulge in his only hobby: guessing when ice will melt.
For $2.50 a pop, he and thousands of others try for a piece of a $300,000 jackpot by predicting the exact minute when spring will loosen the frozen cover of the Tanana River at Nenana enough to move it downstream.

Kentucky has its Derby, Indianapolis its 500. Alaska's rite of spring is the Nenana Ice Classic.

Residents of Nenana, a city of 500 about 55 miles south of Fairbanks, have gambled on when the ice will leave the Tanana for 87 years. "Breakup" on the Tanana and Yukon rivers in the early 1900s meant the waterways could again be used by sternwheelers to haul people and cargo 800 miles west from the Bering Sea.

In 1917, surveyors for the Alaska Engineering Commission, the federal agency charged with building the Alaska Railroad, were waiting for open water so boats could bring up material they needed to go to work. They passed the time by anteing up about $800 to form an ice-betting pool.

The kitty grew as people from around the state began betting. The Ice Classic over the years has paid out nearly $10 million in prize money.

To detect movement in the ice these days, Ice Classic organizers erect a 28-foot wooden tripod about 200 feet from shore just upriver from the 1,300-foot highway bridge. They hook a cable from the tripod to the official Ice Classic clock. When the tripod moves 100 feet, the wire trips the clock.

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