Cordova Chronicles: No ice breakup for Texans

Five-year-old grandson comes closest of anyone in the Shellhorn Gambling Pool

Ice axe in hand, five-year old Texan Huckleberry Moorhead explores frozen water in many forms at Sheridan Glacier during December 2018. Dick Shellhorn photo/The Cordova Times

This year’s Nenana Ice Classic totaled $225,000 and had 35 winners. Alaska’s oldest guessing game was born, as many other gambling schemes, of a bar bet – in this case, back in 1906, between six characters named Adolph Nelson, Jim Duke, Gunnysack Jack, Jonesy, Louis and Joe Johnson, and the winner, Oliver Lee, who won a couple rounds at the trading post bar.

The subsequent pool became inactive until 1916, when bored railroad engineers waiting for the ice to break-up in the nearby Tanana River revived lottery ticket sales at Duke’s Roadhouse but limited the betting to Nenana residents. Word spread to other workers along the railroad, and the lottery was opened up to residents of the Alaska and Yukon territories in 1917.

How the official time was decided in that first bet is unclear, and likely involved more bar-side debate. But these days a screwball, low-tech method involving a wooden tripod frozen in the ice and attached by a long cable to a very old-fashioned clock on the river bank determines the winner.


This year, Anchorage and Fairbanks TV stations showed pictures of the wooden black-and-white striped tripod tilting and slowing sinking into the melting ice on April 30, but it wasn’t until the next day that there was enough tension on the long cable to finally make the clock stop, at an official time of 1:18 p.m. May 1, 2018.

The first winner-take-all pool in 1917 totaled $800. The payout this year, split 35 ways, was $6,428. Statistics and computer analysis have been used by some to crunch data from all the years past, refining the betting methodology such that having large number of tickets on highly probably times is not uncommon.

The famous Nenana Ice Classic tripod, frozen in the Tanana River, with the railroad bridge in the background.
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Filling out Ice Classic tickets is a family tradition. Over the years, Dad would always buy us kids each one ticket, to take our shot at early-stage gambling. After all, he was raised in Seward, which was the major port and terminus of the Alaska Railroad for many years before a tent city up the line evolved into Anchorage. Many of its railway workers and fellow citizens were big into the Ice Classic, and he brought the tradition with him to Cordova.

Our betting methods were totally random. Since my birthday is on May 12, I always picked that day. One year, I had the right minute, and missed by a single digit on the hour. And the payout would have been much more than it is today. Dang.

The Moorhead Clan uses various techniques to traverse Sheridan Glacier ice during their visit from Austin, Texas in December 2018.
Dick Shellhorn photo/The Cordova Times

So, I have continued the tradition by buying a ticket for our daughters and our grandkids. What better way to fund their college education?

Granddaughter Ellie lives right here in Cordova, and knows all about ice. Her Texan cousins, Huck and Liesl, had their first introduction to water in its more rigid state when they came up this past December for their first Christmas here.

Despite many tumbles and a few bruises, the little Longhorns couldn’t get enough of the ice experience. And, although having a difficult time grasping the concept of ice going “out” in a river somewhere in Alaska, they were eager to place their bets.

Every gambler knows about “beginner’s luck.”  And lo and behold, as the Ice Classic Tripod began to slowly settle in the Tanana River on April 30, awareness grew that both the young Texans had a very good shot at winning. Our daughter Heidi and both grandkids had picked times on May 1. By early May 1, thanks to time lapse photograph provided via computer, tension mounted here as much as it did on the wire connected to tripod beginning to move down the Tanana.

Baking in the humid ’80s down in Austin, the youngsters vaguely realized they were on the brink of a Classic Moment. While our daughter Heidi, a longtime Alaska who knows ice thaws out later in the day, had inexplicably picked 6 a.m. May 1, Huck and Liesl, ages 5 and 3, had somehow zeroed in on optimum times in the afternoon.

During her first encounter with ice in Christmas 2018, 3-year old Liesl Moorhead discovers its slippery surface on Odiak Slough is pretty darn cool.
Dick Shellhorn photo/The Cordova Times

Liesl had picked 3:56 p.m.; Huck chose 1:20 p.m. The ice went out at 1:18 p.m. He missed by two minutes. It was the closest anyone in the Shellhorn Gambling Pool has ever come.

Hey, both were thrilled when I called to tell them that since they had picked the right day, I owed them an ice cream Sunday.

Which will melt a lot faster down in Austin than the ice up north on the Tanana.

In December 2018, Heidi and Liesl Moorhead do a modified version of the Texas Two-Step on smooth ice near our home on Odiak Slough.
Dick Shellhorn photo/The Cordova Times
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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.