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Hand-to-fang combat with wolf just one gripping Joe Delia story told at memorial

Craig Medred

WASILLA -- Not many in this day and age can claim to have killed a wolf in hand-to-fang combat, but that's not why hundreds turned out Sunday at the headquarters of the Iditarod Trail Committee in Wasilla to honor the late Joe Delia.

Delia was a man with big, gentle hands who knew well the kill-or-be-killed rules of the jungle, and yet lived by the best rule of mankind -- love thy neighbor. He was a strong man with the face of a smiling hawk and a heart full of compassion.

Many knew Delia, who was 84 when he passed away, as Iditarod Joe. He helped get the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race started in the 1970s, and the Skwentna home of Joe and his wife, Norma, has always been the race checkpoint there. It remained so even after illness forced Joe and Norma to move to town a couple of years ago.

Iditarod broadened the impact Joe had on the world, but he was one of those special people who would have had an impact without Iditarod. He was, quite simply, the best of what Alaska once was -- a place where those living deep in the wilderness reached out a hand to help anyone and everyone because of a shared recognition of the frailty of man.

"He was always looking out for everyone," remembered former Skwentna neighbor Joyce Logan, who along with husband Joe, once owned the Skwentna Roadhouse across the river of the same name.

MOST FAMOUS POSTMASTER

When the U.S. Postal Service once decided mail should be distributed from the roadhouse on the north bank of the river instead of the Skwentna Post Office next to Joe's shed on the south bank, "I was chosen to do Joe's job," Logan said. It almost killed her when she ignored Joe's warning not to cross the spring ice of the river. The river started to break up as she was crossing. Logan saw open water, pegged the throttle on her snowmachine, and barely managed to skip across it to firm ice and snow on the riverbank.

Joe soon had the postmaster job back, and not long after, the U.S. Postal Service filmed a commercial featuring Joe delivering the mail. He was destined to become the most famous postmaster south of the Alaska Range.

Kids who grew up in the Skwentna area -- all now adults, some approaching middle age -- remember wanting to go get the family mail at the post office just so they could listen to Joe tell tales of his exploits.

"Checking the mail was always the highlight of my day," said Israel Payton. "Joe was one of my heroes."

Joe befriended Israel's father, Tom Payton, when he moved into the Skwentna River valley in 1975, looking to become a man of the wilds. At Joe's memorial service, Tom, now in his 60s, joked about how Joe often warned that "there's always some guy with a bag of traps in one hand and a .30-06 (caliber rifle) in the other" looking to make a life in the wilderness.

"I was that young whippersnapper," Tom said, "and Joe immediately knew where I was coming from.

"Joe was a woodsman. I was the greenhorn."

"BEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE"

The term "woodsman'' doesn't mean a lot to most people these days. But it still means much to a select few who know the hardships and difficulties of life beyond the edge of civilization, and understand the work ethic and complex bag of skills required to make that life look easy.

Joe loved to talk about what it was like to live that life. The stories often involved the predicaments he found himself in when things didn't go quite right.

"We all know Joe was legendary in his storytelling," said Stan Hooley, the executive director of the Iditarod. "The best night of my life was the night I spent with Joe Delia in a hotel room" in Anchorage.

Delia was visiting the big city to be honored as a founding member of the Iditarod Hall of Fame. He would eventually end up in the Alaska Trappers Hall of Fame as well. Knowing that Joe needed a place to stay in Anchorage, Hooley offered the extra bed in his hotel room.

After they turned out the lights that night, he said, Joe "told story after story after story. I feel richly blessed by that particular experience."

Hooley had a couple of photographs of Joe from an old book, "The Rifleman in Alaska." The photos date back to 1953. The caption under one photo showing Joe cooking over an open fire reads, "Joe Delia is the strongest man I know. Four years ago he lived 62 days in the Alaska wilderness with nothing to eat but moose meat, fish and wild berries."

But it was the caption under the other photo, the photo of Joe using his thumb to test the sharpness of the edge on an ax, that interested Hooley most.

"Joe Delia, as he looks today, at the age of 22," it read. "He found success and peace in the wilderness -- the hard way."

"That caption pretty well sums up Joe's life," Hooley said, though you'd never have known from talking to Joe that he'd ever experienced a hardship. His cabin door in Skwentna was always open and his home so welcoming inside you'd have thought him a rich man with blessed with the resources to shower his benevolence on everyone.

"It was like home," remembered veteran Iditarod musher Burt Bomhoff. "It was like you were visiting relatives" of the sort you truly enjoy. Bomhoff remembered sitting around the table there with Joe Redington, Gene Leonard, Susan Butcher and other legends of Iditarod history now gone.

"It's just memories now,'' he said.

COMBAT WITH A WOLF

But some of the memories are destined to live on for a long time. Israel Payton, still in his 30s, told the story of the wolf Joe killed with his bare hands. Payton was a kid born in a 12-by-12-foot cabin along the Hayes River north of Skwentna. He was one of those who used to visit the post office just to hear Joe's stories.

One day when he arrived, Joe's snowmachine was parked out front with blood all over the cowling. Israel thought the postmaster might have injured himself, but he went inside the post to find Joe healthy, fit and smiling as always.

Israel asked about the snowmachine, and Joe launched into one of his stories. He'd been out to check his trap line, and found where a pack of 10 wolves had run into on of his sets. One of the wolves had been snared, but tore the snare loose.

So Joe climbed on his machine and took up a chase of the pack. He eventually caught the wolves. The one with the snare still around its neck was lagging behind the pack.

Joe tried to shoot it, but his rifle had frozen in the minus-30 temperatures. That meant he was going to have to find some other way to subdue the animal.

"He jumped off his snowmachine and bull-dogged the wolf to the ground," Israel said. Joe pulled the snare tight around the wolf's neck, and the animal went limp. Joe thought it was dead. He tied it on the back of his snowmachine and headed home.

One problem: The wolf wasn't dead.

On the run back to Skwenta, it came to life and attacked Joe, knocking him off the snowmachine and into the snow. They ended up in a life-and-death battle in the bitter cold. Joe eventually managed to pin the wolf against the cowling of the snowmachine and beat it to death.

"And that's at age 60-plus," Israel said. "He killed it with his bare hands."

They were the gentlest hands another human would ever know, and yet they practiced so well the call of the wild. The likes of Iditarod champions Martin Buser and Jeff King, who were in the audience for the memorial, could understand, as could many of the others there.

The crowd was heavy with Alaskans from another time. These were people who knew how to use an ax better than a computer.

As the service ended, someone started to sing "Amazing Grace." It was not planned. It was sung a capella with only the wind whistling in the early leaves of May as accompaniment.

It was the kind of thing Joe would have appreciated.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com


By CRAIG MEDRED
craig@alaskadispatch.com