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TRAVELING IN STYLE : Correspondents' Choice : HOW DO YOU KNOW IT'S SPRING?

March 07, 1993|John Balzar, Seattle bureau | Six Times correspondents from around the world identify the harbingers of the season in cities they have covered.

IN ALASKA

PERHAPS NO SIGNAL OF THE ONSET OF SPRING IN ALASKA IS MORE DRAMATIC--or more welcome--than the thunderous crash of ice breaking up in the far north, as the great Arctic rivers throw off their blankets of winter and come to life anew. Stravinsky's powerful "Rite of Spring," the composer once said, was inspired by this basso profundo moment of nature--which he described as sounding "like the whole earth cracking."

In the interior of Alaska, south of Fairbanks, the celebration of this spring breakup is both carnival and casino. This year, for the 77th year, thousands upon thousands of Alaskans will wager in the $2 Ice Classic Lottery, in the community of Nenana, trying to guess the exact day, hour and minute that the ice breaks loose. (It typically occurs between April 20 and May 20.)

The breakup is measured on the Tanana River at the point where it passes the town: As the ice begins to melt, a one-ton buoy begins to move with it, tightening a wire that trips a meat cleaver, which cuts a cord that pulls a cotter pin and stops the official clock. A siren is also sounded. Last year, there were 165,000 entries. Half the pot was donated to charity; the other half was awarded to Mary Lou Burke, then an unemployed single mother of four, who had come to Alaska for a new start. Her guess came within two minutes of the officially clocked breakup time of 6:26 a.m., May 14.

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