By Joseph Robertia
What do the Cookie Monster, a fire truck, a boom truck, a block of ice and the Kenai River have in common? This question was on the lips of many passing motorists when they saw all these things on the only bridge into Soldotna on March 27.
The answer comes courtesy of a joint effort by the Kenai and Soldotna Rotary clubs, as they are working together on a pilot project to establish a local version of the popular Nenana Ice Classic.
“Ours will be called the Kenai River Ice Classic,” said Rotary member Josselyn O’Connor, who, along with fellow Rotarian and project spearhead, Sarah Riley, have been working to bring the idea to fruition.
Started in 1906, the Nenana Ice Classic is a nonprofit fundraiser which sells tickets representing guesses for when the ice will go out on the Tanana River. A tripod is constructed on the frozen river and attached to a time clock that records the exact moment the tripod moves as a result of the river breaking up.
The inception for a local contest was — as with many great ideas — quite by accident. O’Conner said that, while reviewing other things, a Rotarian mentioned in passing that it was written into state statutes that Kenai or Soldotna Rotary could legally hold this type of “lottery.” This was followed up by a rhetorical question that became a literal reality.
“Someone asked, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ And that got the momentum going,” O’Conner said.
The brainstorming began, at the center of which was how to make the local contest unique.
“We went ’round and ’round about, ‘Should it be a tripod, or a buoy?’ And ultimately we went with an ice block. It seemed to be the best because it wouldn’t have to be returned,” O’Connor said.
As the idea grew, more agencies and organizations got involved, including the Kenai River Center, which gave input on the location; the Alaska Department of Transportation, which gave input on how to attach the block to the bridge; Metal Magic, which helped with the clock mechanism; and Spenard Builders Supply, which loaned a boom truck to lower the 2-ton ice block cut from a gravel pit off of Beaver Loop Road.
With so many emergency and industrial vehicles on the scene, O’Conner said that the dancing Cookie Monster, joined by Elmo and a lemon-headed mascot, were there to let passers by know that no disaster or crisis was happening.
“They were just there to keep the mood light,” she said. “We didn’t want anyone alarmed.”
Central Emergency Services was integral in getting the block attached to the bridge and clock. It now resides on the ice on the downriver side of the bridge, somewhat adjacent to the Soldotna Visitors Center.
“CES was looking for an opportunity to do an ice-rescue exercise, so they were able to use this as a training mission and to help by running lines from the ice to the clock,” O’Conner said.
The line is a short piece of halibut-strength fishing line, and since this is the first year, it remains to be seen if all this will work as planned.
“In theory, when the block moves it’ll pull the trigger and stop the clock,” O’Conner said. “If it works, next year we’ll not only sell tickets, but we’ll also dump the ice earlier, possibly around the Peninsula Winter Games.”
O’Conner said there also will be more done to make the block a bit fancier.
“It would be cool to have the ice carved or stenciled in some way, or possibly lit. We’d also like to get a camera up somewhere with a live feed on it all,” she said.
And if it doesn’t work on the first try, they won’t give up the effort.
“It might need to be tweaked, or we might need to go back to the drawing board,” she said.
If it works well enough that tickets can be sold, the proceeds will be put back into the community.
While tickets aren’t being sold this year, people are encouraged to make guesses when they think the ice will go out, and they can submit their guesses to the local Rotary groups’ Facebook pages. Although, longtime river residents say guessing correctly may be harder than it seems.
Bill Radtke lives on the river just below Swiftwater Park in Soldotna. As an angler who’s always itching to get on the water when the river opens up, he said he’s seen some wide variations in that time, including two winters where the river never completely froze.
“I’d say any time between March 15 and the end of April would be a good bet,” he said. “But, if I had to pick a day in there, I’d go with April 15th.”
“I’ve seen it go out at all different times,” said Marge Mullen, who lives on the Kenai River near Soldotna Creek, adding that even without a clock, the natural process is tough to miss.
“My house is right beside the river, so there’s a lot of fanfare — booming and cracking — when it goes,” she said.
If she had to place a bet, Mullen said her safe money would be later than March, even though the river has broken up that early on many occasions.
“I would definitely go with sometime in April,” she said.