June 20, 2018

Eye on the Trail: Behind the Scenes at Skwentna

By sunrise on Monday morning, Yentna Checkpoint at mile 42 is a ghost town. The mushers have passed through, the volunteers are being flown out, relocating to other responsibilities and the Gabryszaks who host the checkpoint at their roadhouse are enjoying some peace and quiet after a night of intense Iditarod traffic.

Beginning at around 21:00 Sunday evening, the volunteers at Skwentna can expect their first musher to arrive and from there the peace and tranquility the small community is know for shifts to Iditarod Intense.   Skwentna, located near the confluence of the Yentna and Skwentna Rivers, lies at mile 72 of the trail to Nome.

By following the race stats and GPS tracker, anyone can see where the mushers are, whether they are resting or moving and what their speed is or has been. But what about the Checkpoints they pass through? Each has a personality of its own and a very interesting story. Here’s your behind the scenes look at Skwentna Checkpoint.

Young Joe Delia was running a trap line in the area harvesting beaver, lynx, marten, mink, muskrat, otter and wolf. Well before the advent of snowmachines, Delia’s mode of transportation along the 125 mile trapping trail was dog team and skies. Once he set eyes on the spot where the Outback Cabin and the Post Office currently stand, he resolved to build a place to live there and make a life for himself in the woods. He took on the job of being the Skwentna Postmaster in 1950. Over time Joe became a legend as a woodsman and trapper and when asked would share his knowledge with other young aspiring woodsmen.

In the early 70’s when Joe Redington was dreaming about racing 1,000 miles to Nome, he turned to Delia for help in opening the old Iditarod gold trail. Norma, Joe’s devoted wife of more than thirty years shared the story of how they became involved in the Iditarod. She told Mike Nesper of ADN, “Joe was out on his snowmachine and came across a couple of guys on skies. Come to find out, the two fellows were working with Joe Redington and Dave Olson on putting in a trail to Nome. Delia liked the idea of a sled dog marathon and agreed to help establish the route from Skwentna to Rainy Pass.” He also offered to host a checkpoint for the race at the Delia home.

The Delia Outback cabin has been the checkpoint for 46 years now. At first Joe and Norma did it all with the help of a few locals. Before the race, Joe broke trail and Norma planned the menu and did the shopping. During the race Joe was the checker down on the river while up in the cabin Norma did the cooking and serving. As the couple aged and the demands of the race grew, friends, Rob and Cyndy Fritts, became chief assistants to Joe and Norma. Joe and Norma Delia as well as Rob and Cyndy Fritts have all passed away but the checkpoint is now in the very capable hands of Keegan Fritts who acts as the head checker. When the volunteers who run the Skwentna checkpoint – the Sweeties, Darlings, Judges, Vets and Communications workers all arrive, the total number of Skwentna volunteers ranges between forty and fifty.

The Sweeties, mostly from the Mat-Su Valley, plan the menus, do the shopping and prepare the food for all the volunteers and the mushers. The Darlings, a large crew of more than a dozen, come in from Tacoma, Washington. They organize the river portion of the checkpoint. The sign has to be erected, the straw bales are spread out on opposite sides of the river. The drop bags are sorted and stacked alphabetically in the middle of the river. A mega BTU two-burner stove is set up next to a hole that’s chopped in the ice for water. Skwentna is one of the checkpoints that heats water for the mushers.

The checkpoint is ready by late Sunday afternoon so the volunteers can all take a little break before the rush begins. Traffic through the early checkpoints on the trail is extremely close-packed. It takes a few days for teams to spread out so it’s not unusual to have four or five teams under the banner at the same time.

It’s a real thrill to see the headlamp beam coming round the bend of the river indicating the first musher is about to arrive. The crew has been working together for so many years, everyone knows their job and even though the entire volunteer force is on the river to greet the first musher, they get back to their work very quickly and work hard all night. Every checkpoint has its own unique traits. Skwentna ranks very high in hospitality, efficiency and organization.

Upon checking in under the Skwentna banner, the musher announces his/her bib number. The time is recorded along with the number of dogs on the line – most will still have 16. The musher indicates whether they are parking or going on through. If the team is staying, they are parked diagonally at a bale of straw. The vets will talk to the musher and check the team as the musher is cooking for the dogs. If the team is going on through, the team is parked temporarily for re-supplying and a vet check.

As the checker records the pertinent data of in time and dogs in for each musher, a comms person does the same. The comms person relays the information up to comms in the cabin. An email is drafted and sent to Anchorage where the data is made live on the Iditarod webpage. Data from Skwentna is sent via dial-up satellite phone. There are a number of checks, balances and procedures in place to make sure that all data is communicated between the checkpoint and Iditarod Headquarters in Anchorage.

Compared to checkpoints further down the trail, Skwentna Checkpoint is very short lived. Roughly twelve hours from the time the first team arrives, the final team will depart. An incredible amount of planning and work goes into preparing for those twelve hours, energy abounds during the time mushers are in the checkpoint and of course there’s always the cleaning up and putting away after the final musher moves onto Finger Lake.  

When Iditarod comes around multitudes of volunteers gather as family at the Delia homestead on the high bank of the Skwentna River. It’s like a holiday and it’s celebrated by all with hard work, camaraderie, a sense of service to a greater cause and a job well done. When the mushers arrive they’ll be greeted and provided for. There’s always an abundance of food and story telling and a spot on the floor of the house for a short nap. The Delias could have written the book on hospitality, theirs was a very special brand. Because Joe and Norma trained an army of dedicated volunteers, Skwentna as it’s been known in the past will continue into the future.