Rural Alaska

Iditarod legend Joe Delia finally, grudgingly, leaves Skwentna behind

No man can outrun Father Time, especially in the Alaska Bush where life remains closer to the age-old struggles of nature than the comforts of the modern age. But Joe Delia gave it one hell of a try.

For 50 years, Delia was an institution along the Skwentna River. Time Magazine profiled his life in 1970 under a headline that read: "The Vanishing World of Trapper Joe Delia.''

Delia was 40 then, and it might have seemed the world he knew was vanishing. It wasn't. It was changing in ways that no one could quite predict. The Alaska population boom that was threatening the lifestyle of those who knew the Alaska Bush turned into something of a population dud. Alaska grew, but it didn't grow in Skwentna. The back-to-the-Earth hippies went back to town. Alaska coalesced around a few major cities. It continues to do so.

And now Delia lives in one of those cities. The Iditarod Air Force, a crazy gang of volunteers who fly small planes for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, descended on the community of Skwentna last week to help Joe and wife, Norma, pack their belongings for a move to town. At the age of 82, with his health not the best, Joe has been pretty much forced to accept civilization. Life in the city is infinitely easier than life in Skwentna.

Not that Joe wanted to go. Everyone agrees on that. "It's heartbreaking," said friend Bonnie Childs.

Childs used to manage the Skwentna Roadhouse, which her parents built 30 years ago. Skwentna has always been home, and she's now moved back. Her husband, Steve, is taking over Delia's job as postmaster. He'll be manning the tiny, log post office just up the bank of the Skwentna River across the water from the airstrip. It won't be the same without Joe .

Delia was an institution in a community so small it isn't even called a town. It's considered a "census designated place." And in this census designated place, Joe loomed large. Skwentna without Joe Delia seems to many sort of like the Alaska Range without Mount McKinley.

"He's like one of those old landmarks," said Danny Davidson, a volunteer pilot for the Iditarod Air Force for 32 years now, working in his own way toward becoming a landmark. Davidson and Joe Delia go way back. There are a lot of people who duck in and out of the Alaska Bush (including the author of this story) who have that sort of relationship with Joe. The people who've warmed themselves against bitter cold or blizzard conditions in Delia's home over the years number in the hundreds, if not the thousands.

One of his homes Delia gave to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He moved out of that one and into another in 2008. There was some talk then about his moving to town. Norma was ready. Joe fought it every step of the way.

"He did not want to go to town," Childs says. Delia loved Skwentna, though there isn't much there to love by 21st century American norms: an airport, a school that closed down because there weren't enough students, a few houses scattered in the woods, the Roadhouse, and, of course, the river and the forests that sprawl north and east toward the Alaska Range. Delia loved the forests around Skwentna and the wildlife that lived there. He was a modern-day mountain man. He tried to take his snowshoes, rifle and pack with him on the plane when he left -- just in case.

He told friends maybe he could get a snowmachine in Anchorage and drive back out to Skwentna to trap in the winter. It's 90 long miles by trail, a long ride even for a younger man in the best of health. It's not the sort of drive Delia is up to making these days, but letting go of a place you love is a hard thing for a man like Delia. The country becomes part of you are. It's a piece of your soul.

"He came up to see me the last time I was there, and he was not tickled to leave," Davidson said.

Childs probably understands this better than anyone. She's lived in Skwentna most of her life. "I've known known Joe since I was 17," she confessed. When Childs is gone from Skwentna in the summer, it's because she's working as a cook at a sled-dog camp on a glacier above Juneau, the state capital. There's a good bit of Joe Delia in her. She knows what it's like to love a wild place that becomes a part of you. She admits she looks to the future sometimes and wonders, "Are we going to have to move to town, too?

"I'd rather go out on an ice flow."

More than a few others in the Bush can empathize with that view. The land in the north can come to inhabit people. It's a raw and rugged place with an old code. If change is difficult for people who live in cities where change is constant, it's nightmarish for people out here where life is governed by weather and wilderness and seasons, which though they change daily remain predictable. When you're used to this, change becomes an even bigger challenge.

Davidson said he remembers well when he and Delia messed with the late Gene Leonard, a trapper friend of Delia's who lived some 40 miles north of Skwentna along the Iditarod Trail at Finger Lake. The time was the early 1980s, and bicycles were just making their first appearances along the Iditarod Trail. Dan Bull, an Alaska character in his own right and regular visitor to the Delia home in Skwentna, was then promoting a race called the Iditasport. Fat-tire bikes used for riding on snowmachine trails -- bikes like those on which most of the 55 entrants in Iditarod Invitational will ride to McGrath next month -- had yet to be invented. As a result, Iditasport competitors pushed more than they rode, and more than a few abandoned their bikes.

Davidson found an abandoned bike, and he and Delia flew it north to Finger Lake where Joe parked it in front of Leonard's. They left it there, not telling Leonard. When Joe next heard from his friend, Leonard was on a tear. "That's it," Davidson remembers him saying. "When bicycles get here, I'm leaving."

Not longer after, Leonard left to live out the end of his life in the kinder, gentler world of modern America. Joe was not happy to see him leave, but he watched a lot of friends move out of the country or move on to the other side. The late Joe Redington, founder of the Iditarod, was one of those who enlivened the Delia cabin for years. The two Joes could sit around at Iditarod time telling stories about the old days that held the attention of everyone in the always-crowded house. Redington was a top-10 Iditarod finisher in his 70s, but time eventually caught up to him, too.

Ill health forced Redington off the runners, and he spent his last days at the family homestead at Knik, not far from the doctors in Wasilla. Delia, too, needs to be somewhere where life is easier and medical help more readily available. It's sure to be difficult for him. Among the volunteers who helped him move -- Mike Spernak, Ernie Borjon, Jimmy Kintz, Bill Schwaab, Diana Moroney, the Christian Pilots Association and Davidson -- there wasn't a one without mixed feelings.

Sometimes, things have got to be a certain way, but that doesn't make them any easier. Still, Norma reports things are going well. A regular on Facebook, she Tuesday posted: "Guess Skwentna is getting a huge, big storm. Happy we got out when we did, or we'd still be there! Getting furniture tomorrow. Then we can settle in. Will feel so good!!"

A couple feet of snow had piled up back home in Skwentna. Everyone there was digging out -- as they have been frequently this winter. Childs noted the caretakers in the Delia house are beginning to wonder just what they've gotten themselves into. With the snow piled more than 4 feet deep, you shovel all the time to keep buildings from collapsing, to make it possible to see out windows after roofs avalanche, to build a ramp to hike up out of the cabin to where the snowmachine is parked.

It is, sad to say, no life for old men. And all men, even the toughest of them, grow old.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

Sponsored