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Nenana Ice Classic manager to step down after quarter century leading popular Alaska contest

Nenana Ice Classic Manager Cherrie Forness will step down from the helm of the state’s oldest wagered guessing game after the tripod falls this spring.
Published: Apr. 23, 2022 at 2:38 PM AKDT
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NENANA, Alaska (KTUU) - Nenana Ice Classic Manager Cherrie Forness will step down from the helm of the state’s oldest wagered guessing game after the tripod falls this spring. Forness has spent 26 years as manager, but very little has changed about the event since she took over.

“I like doing the traveling and and when we’re out delivering cans in January around the state, we really liked hearing people say, ‘well, we know spring’s coming because you guys are showing up,’” Forness said. “So pretty much everything about the job is pretty darn good.”

Forness has overseen the state’s only legalized gambling event that has taken place ever since railroad workers placed bets on when the Tanana River ice would break up in 1917. According to the Nenana Ice Classic website, the Alaska Legislature granted special statutory authority for the contest in 1960, and the Nenana Ice Classic Association was incorporated in 1972. Forness said that she has been going on trips across the state every spring to deliver cans where Alaskans can submit their guesses for when the tripod will fall in person. Additionally, anyone can submit a guess in the mail.

Late last month, HBO late-night show host John Oliver dedicated the final segment of his show to the ice classic and placed his own guess for April 26 at 2:17 p.m. Oliver said that if he wins, he will donate the proceeds to the Food Bank of Alaska, and that if he doesn’t win, he will still donate $10,000 to the food bank.

“The week after that program aired, we were getting all kinds of emails and all kinds of phone calls about purchasing tickets from people that had seen his show,” Forness said. “So it definitely, definitely helped plug our little function, event. So it was it was really, really cool.”

Forness and Assistant Manager Megan Baker work from November to May preparing for the thousands of guesses. After distributing guess cans in January, they return to Nenana and place the tripod on the Tanana River. The “Tripod Weekend” takes place during the first weekend in March and is celebrated by the entire community of Nenana with games and activities. Baker expressed how vital Forness has been to the success of the Nenana Ice Classic over the last 26 years.

“When people think of the Nenana Ice Classic, Cherrie is synonymous with that,” Baker said.

Extra employees are hired to sort all the guesses once the tripod is on the river, and Forness said that each guess is typed into a computer from 1987 that still uses a disk operating system, or DOS. Each guess ticket is sorted in numerical order into cubbies, and the computerized list is checked and rechecked for accuracy in comparison to the paper copies.

“Any proceeds after we’ve paid our expenses and, and the jackpot,” Forness said. “We put back in a lot of that money back into our community.”

Last year, 12 winners with correct guesses split the jackpot of $233,591. Leftover funds go to local organizations including boy scout troops, the Fairbanks Food Bank, the Nenana Public Library, the Nenana Senior Center, public radio, and scholarships for students.

Aside from the intrigue of a statewide guessing game with the allure of a major payout, the Nenana Ice Classic has been applauded as one of the oldest and most accurate climate records, with a detailed list of when the Tanana River ice breaks up each year.

“I don’t know that there’s really any historical data anywhere else like this,” Forness said.

Baker praised the work Forness has done overtime in stewarding the Nenana Ice Classic over her 26 years as manager. Forness said that as long as she lives in Nenana, she will never not be at least a part of the event, but is excited to spend time engaging with her community between November and May after she retires later this year. Baker said that without Forness, the event may have fallen apart long ago.

Though the time period to submit guesses closed on April 5, Forness has watched the tripod closely over the last 26 years and said that she expects the ice to break up between April 28 and May 5. Through tears, Forness thanked the people who have helped her put on one of Alaska’s most cherished events.

“A leader is only as good as the people they have working for them. So I have been blessed with having good workers, and I will miss them,” Forness said. “...I really have really enjoyed working with all the people I’ve worked with over the years.”

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