Alaska News

Always capable, always welcoming, legendary Joe Delia of Skwenta passes away

An Alaska legend died Thursday. Joe Delia was the last of a breed who stretched back across American time and geography to Kit Carson, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone -- men who found the New World best suited to them just beyond the edge of the frontier.

Friends feared Delia might not last long after health issues forced his departure two years ago from his beloved home in a log cabin on a sandy bank above the Skwentna River at the southern edge of the Alaska Range foothills, about 70 miles north of Anchorage.

Only reluctantly did he allow himself to be loaded into an airplane and flown to the city, the whole time talking and thinking about how if he got a new snowmachine he could still make his way up the frozen Susitna and Yentna rivers in the winter to do some trapping.

His mind was still out there, focused on life in the wilderness, even as his body was being transported somewhere closer to the physicians who help to add years to the end of life of everyone in America today.

Delia never got that new snowmachine. And he never made it back. He died Thursday in Anchorage. He was believed to be 84, born in January 1930, though Missouri census records show the only Joe Delia there born sometime in 1925.

Whatever his exact age, it is clear he cheated the modern world for decades.

TIME magazine predicted the end of Delia's wilderness lifestyle in a 1970 story titled "The Vanishing World of Trapper Joe Delia."

"Nowadays, trapping is on the wane, a victim of the fake fur, depressed pelt prices, new roads and population growth," the story began. "Such is the lure of the Alaskan wilderness, though, that perhaps 110 professional trappers are still at large."

Alaska was at the time filling up with Bush hippies looking to move back to the land, and there was a lot of talk about opening up the north to development. The 1960s had begun with construction on a new highway -- the George Parks -- to connect Anchorage to Fairbanks. It would be completed in 1971, though parts remained a gravel road for years.

Oil had been found on the North Slope. Wally Hickel, a self-made millionaire with entrepreneurial dreams as big as Alaska, had been elected governor, He in 1968 ordered the state Department of Transportation to start punching a winter road north from Fairbanks into the Arctic.

There were legitimate reasons to believe Delia's world was doomed, but times changed. The hippies found life in the Bush harder than expected and fled for civilization. The military, which had remote bases scattered all over Alaska at one time, retrenched near the big cities. The military station near Skwentna was closed. The Skwentna school was eventually shut down.

Rural Alaska began to depopulate. Fur came back in various ways. Growing tourism brought new markets. Delia joked about selling the hides of "brush wolves" --- coyotes in reality -- to the Japanese visitors who came to Skwentna in the 1980s.

Times had changed, but Delia remained in the game. Working as the postmaster in Skwentna, trapping, running a gas station for boaters on the river and an increasing number of snowmachiners taking advantage of technology to begin winter explorations of the upper Yentna River valley, Delia found the means to build himself a comfortable life in the wilderness.

He'd come a long way from the young man who first tried to paddle a raft from Seattle to Alaska. That was a miserable failure. He was stopped by a curious bystander who spotted him headed up the Green River. Delia had thought himself padding downstream with the current to the ocean. He was actually paddling upstream in the wrong direction as the tides pushed a current inland.

It was a story he told many times over the years. He had a marvelous sense of humor and most of it he directed at himself. Tyson Johnson, who grew up at a lodge nearby and drove his snowmachine to school in Skwentna, remembers that more than anything.

Delia, he said, could spin a great tale. It's what many remember most. The Iditarod Trail Committee set up a link for people to share stories online. They were pouring in Friday.

A onetime dog man, Delia never ran the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but he carved himself a big niche in Iditarod history. "...It's hard to imagine the race without him," the Anchorage Daily News reported after Delia was voted into the Iditarod Hall of Fame in 1997.

Joe and Norma were for years the foundation of the Skwentna checkpoint, and Joe helped build the very first trail in 1973. The trail is where it is today from Skwentna to Rainy Pass, instead of on its hard-to-find historic route, because that's where Delia and the late Gene Leonard, another trapper and character of note, put it.

Joe was the best of Bush Alaska -- always smiling, always ready to help others, capable of fixing almost anything, and sympathetic to greenhorns. He knew and remembered what it was like to learn from failure the skills necessary to survive beyond the edge of civilization.

He wasn't shy about sharing his own mistakes after heading for Alaska in 1948. They began with that failed raft excursion, which ended with his getting on a ship and sailing north in a more conventional fashion. He landed in Ketchikan at the tip of the Southeast Alaska panhandle but didn't stay long before working his way farther into the Great White Silence.

Eventually, he made Big Lake -- now something of an Alaska resort community in the 49th state -- north of Palmer in the 1950s. Palmer was then home to 890 people. Anchorage was home to only slightly more than 11,000. The 1950 U.S. Census pegged the entire "urban" population of the state at 34,262. The statewide population numbered 128,642. There are today more than twice as many people living in Anchorage alone.

But even in the 1950s, there were too many people in the state's cities for Joe. He preferred what was then still wilderness around Big Lake. He built himself a tiny cabin with a thatched roof. The roof leaked all winter.

Near starvation, he got lucky when a moose wandered past his cabin. He shot it. It stumbled between two trees, got stuck, died there and froze. All winter long, Joe would go out with an ax and chop a chunk of meat out of its side to eat. When he told this story decades later, he'd laugh about how whatever he cooked usually had as much moose hair as moose flesh in it.

His hunting skills would improve. He became the consummate woodsman. It was hard for most who heard the tales of his early years to believe he was talking about the same Joe Delia -- the Joe Delia who became a skilled carpenter, mechanic, welder, trapper, hunter, fishermen, woodsman and more. That Joe Delia was as comfortable in the wilderness as most Americans are in a shopping mall.

Largely, self-schooled, articulate and well-read and, most of all, Bush capable, Delia was what Chris McCandless and others who stumbled north looking to become modern-day mountain men wanted to be. McCandless, of course, became famous when his failings were glorified in the book, later a movie, "Into the Wild."

Delia never failed. He made mistakes. He was the first to admit that, but always he found a way to fix his mistakes and carry on. He came to be widely admired for that.

"Joe was quite a guy," said Shelley Gill of Homer, now a nationally acclaimed author of children's books who in 1978 was one of the first women to enter the Iditarod. "Joe (Redington) Sr. said (Joe Delia) was the kind of guy you could drop into the wilderness from a plane with a knife and come back to a warm cabin with coffee on. I'll miss knowing he's around."

In that, she'll be part of a long list of Iditarod fans and long time Alaskans who Joe Delia met and befriended over the years. In the hearts of many of them, he will now be forever on the trail with old friend Redington, the founder of the Iditarod race.

"Joe Delia was the heart and soul of the Iditarod -- but more than that he was a true friend," said Raine Hall, who is working on a soon-to-be-published book titled "Iditarod, The First Ten Years ... an Anthology." "Alaska seems a bit lonelier place to me today."

The Delias lived a long and interesting life in a gorgeous log cabin known to everyone connected with the Iditarod as the Skwentna checkpoint. Joe will be missed there. Norma battles on.

Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.