Between Denali National Park and Fairbanks, there’s just one town that’s probably big enough to justify a brief stop. And you’ll want to stop, just to figure out what all those weird pyramid-shaped telephone polls are all about. It’s Nenana, Alaska, and those poles play a central role in the town’s biggest event — one that gets attention around the state, and even farther.
Nenana is located at the confluence of the Nenana and Tenana Rivers. It’s also located along the Alaska Railway and along the George Parks Highway, Alaska Route 3. Both the auto road and the railroad cross the Tenana River here.
When I turned off the highway into Tenana, one of the first things I noticed was this:
I had no idea what this thing was, but I knew it must be important, because there are several of them scattered around town. This thing, it turns out…
… is a tripod. Sure, “tri” usually indicates three, and this thing clearly has four or five or nine legs. But don’t get caught up in the semantics. What you need to know is, a tripod like this one plays a pivotal role every spring, in this town’s claim to fame. Drive on through town, to the riverfront…
… and you’ll find another piece of the puzzle. This is the Nenana Ice Classic’s clock tower. Don’t get caught up in the fact that it doesn’t have a Big Ben-style clock face. It’s not that kind of clock.
Every winter, the Nenana River freezes into a massive chunk of ice, which prevented any river-based transportation in and out of the town for several months. Obviously, the most important question on everyone’s mind each year is, “when is this ($*#&#@* ice going to melt?”. And rather than just ask, back in 1917, a group of surveyors for the Alaska Railroad decided to make things interesting. They placed bets on when the ice would melt, and the guy with the closest guess took home the cash.
Which brings us up to the current-day Nenana Ice Classic, the tripod, and the clock tower. Every winter, the town builds a tripod out on the ice. They connect it to a clock with a rope. When the ice moves enough, it moves the tripod, pulls the rope, and stops the clock. And a lucky winner goes home with the cash.
The Ice Classic clock tower isn’t the only thing to see along the riverfront.
Here, you also have a nice view of the giant Parks Highway bridge over the Tenana River. It was built in 1968, providing access to Fairbanks. The Parks Highway was completed in 1971, giving Nenanans (or is it Nenanites? Nenanians?) a much more direct link with Anchorage.
Look the other direction, and you can admire the Mears Memorial Bridge. It was completed in 1923, and at the time, its 700-foot span ranked as the longest truss-span bridge in the United States. It’s still the longest span of any kind in Alaska, and the third-longest simple truss bridge bridge in North America.
Right next to this nice view of the river, you’ll find the Nenana Cultural Center, which has exhibits and a gift shop.
Backtrack a couple of blocks towards town…
… and you can check out the Nenana train depot. It was built in 1922, and a year later, President Warren Harding came to town to drive a spike into the Alaska Railroad, completing the project. The depot is one of just three on the Alaska Railroad that are still standing.
Inside, you’ll find a gift shop…
… and a museum, which was somewhat sparse during my visit, but still interesting.
The train depot is at the end of A Street, the main road into town. Along A Street…
… you can check out the handful of businesses in Nenana, which include Moocher’s Bar…
… and Coghill’s grocery and hardware store, which features an interesting mural outside.
I’m not sure if the Nenana Cafe is still open or not.
Some interesting antiquated options for snow travel are on display in front of one business…
… and you might be able to find a room for the night, or dinner, at Rough Woods Inn.
Once you’ve worked your way back out to the highway…
… stop once again to admire the Taku Chief. This tug started working in Alaska in 1938, and moved to the Alaskan interior in 1945. It was retired in 1978. The statue honors the Alaska Territorial Guard — an army of 6,368 volunteers (many from the native population) that guarded Alaska’s shores during World War II.
Satisfied with your visit to Nenana? It’s time to hop back onto Alaska 3 northbound, the Parks Highway, for the drive over the Tenana River and on to Fairbanks.