Kuskokwim Ice Classic Tripod heralds spring on the Kuskokwim

The Kuskokwim Ice Classic tripod is up. The clock is counting down to breakup and to that coveted $10,000 prize. The money goes to whoever guesses closest to when the tripod drifts away, unplugging a clock, and marking the official start of spring. It’s also, of course, a time to invest in youth programs from dance to archery to the lifesaving skill of swimming.

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Kuskokwim Ice Classic tripod standing on the Kuskokwim River in front of Bethel. The top represents a story knife and the bottom legs represents kayaks. (Photo courtesy of Michell DeWitt.)
Kuskokwim Ice Classic tripod standing on the Kuskokwim River in front of Bethel. The top represents a story knife and the bottom legs represents kayaks. (Photo courtesy of Michell DeWitt.)

“Do you think people think, this is about helping kids?” asked reporter Anna Rose MacArthur. “Or I could win $10,000! Spring is coming!”

“Yeah, I think people tend to forget about that part of it— that it’s actually benefiting really valuable causes, which is fine,” said Paul Basile, the Kuskokwim Ice Classic Manager. “It’s a fun game, too.”

Last year 6,000 guesses competed for the $10,000 jackpot and raised over that amount for youth programs. This year six programs are selling tickets at $5 a pop and will keep half the proceeds. Basile says some people consult tide tables to make their guess. Last year, a winner wrote down her daughter’s birthday.

The tripod tradition started in the early 1980’s. Basile says, in the past, the classic threw together some lumber to make the structure.

But last year, the group upped their game. They asked the Lower Kuskokwim School District’s STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, program to submit tripod designs.

From a nine-inch model, the classic constructed a 28-foot tall sculpture. It’s a story knife reaching into the sky with two kayaks streaming out beneath.

If it sounds familiar, Basile says, that’s because you’ve already seen it.

“Never before in the history of the Kuskokwim Ice Classic has a tripod been recovered after breakup,” Basile said. “But somebody noticed it washed up on the shore a little bit below town.”

“The first time I went out in a kayak just to get across the slough and get something on it, so it wouldn’t end up in Oscarville or something,” said Eric Whitney, Kuskokwim Ice Classic board member and tripod rescuer.

Whitney attached anchors to the wooded frame until he could retrieve it with a larger boat.

Kuskokwim Ice Classic tripod construction crew. (Photo courtesy of Michell DeWitt.)
Kuskokwim Ice Classic tripod construction crew. (Photo courtesy of Michell DeWitt.)

“And that worked” said Whitney. “I really wasn’t sure if that was going to work at all. You never know if the water is going to come up and a big ice floe is going to come and just sweep it down and crush it to bits. But we got lucky.”

Something else good happened this year.

Whitney: “Hey, our forklift man is here.”

Last year the group put up the 28-foot tripod by hand, which, Basile says, involved people standing on ladders on the ice pushing up the structure with a broomstick.

Michelle DeWitt is the Executive Director of the Bethel Community Services Foundation, which operates the Kuskowkim Ice Classic.

“Last year I was glad I double-checked our insurance,” Dewitt said.

Dewitt said the tripod tradition marries a community event with fundraising, using the excitement of breakup.

Which could be soon. Overflow is spilling over the river’s edge. The top layer of ice is crumbling. And temperature forecasts predict highs in the upper 30’s through next week.

“As soon as that water starts flowing on the Kuskokwim,” said Dewitt. “Boats are going out nearly immediately and people start engaging in the summer activities. So it’s a really exciting time for the community.”

Kuskokwim Ice Classic tickets are on sale at Bethel Community Services Foundation and Swanson’s until April 18.