Joe Delia came to Alaska at the age of seventeen, about sixty-five years ago. Within a short time, he chose a high bank of the Skwentna River to homestead. He’s a legend as a woodsman and trapper. Besides living with the land, Joe has manned the Skwentna Post Office as postmaster since 1948. Joe has lent many a helping hand in establishing the Last Great Race® on the east side of the Alaska Range. As the race began, Joe Redington turned to Delia to open a trail to Rainy Pass. The teams currently, as they did then, travel portions of Delia’s former trap line. The checkpoint has been on the river below the Skwentna Post Office and Joe’s cabin since the first running of Iditarod.
Joe married his wonderful wife and devoted companion, Norma, almost thirty years ago. As Joe tells the story, he wanted their home to be nice for his bride and that would include indoor plumbing and so he built an indoor bathroom. There would still be an outhouse but Norma would have indoor conveniences. Joe however refused to use the indoor bathroom for quite some time.
There are many tributes that can be shared of Joe’s many years as a trailbreaker and checker and Norma as mother hen for the mushers. The one theme that runs constant is Joe and Norma’s hospitality. You are only a stranger at the Delia homestead once. Visitors are welcomed with open arms and as they sign the guest book upon leaving, it’s as friends. In the case of the team of Iditarod volunteers – cabin Sweeties, river Darlings, and race personnel – they leave as family. The Iditarod volunteers meet at Delia’s once a year for a hectic weekend when Iditarod passes through. It’s Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and every other holiday all rolled into one and there’s no better way to spend it then as part of the Delia family.
A tribute to the Delia’s open door hospitality hangs above their front door. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” Hebrews 13:2. Thank you, Joe and Norma. Words are not adequate to express what time at your homestead has meant to each of us. Collectively we wish you only the best as you take this giant step into your future.
The above article was published in the 2012 Iditarod Race Guide as part of the article titled:
Entertaining Strangers and Building an Iditarod Family… Thanks Joe and Norma Delia, By Terrie Hanke
Remembering Joe, Norma, and Skwentna Checkpoint… The Skwentna Checkpoint Story By Todd Silver, The Darlings…
The warm glow of the Delia’s famous checkpoint cabin on the bluff overlooking the Skwentna River has been a welcome sight to decades of Iditarod mushers. Since the race started, Joe and Norma Delia have opened their home to mushers, vets, trail crews, media and volunteers who each have enjoyed their unique outback hospitality. Norma and the “Skwentna Sweeties”, headed by Cyndy Fritts of Eagle River, served up a round-the-clock “Idita-feast” as dozens wedge themselves into the crowded checkpoint cabin to warm up and chow down whilst Joe, Rob & Keegan Fritts managed the checkpoint on the river below.
In the early years the mushers began to arrive in the wee morning hours and it was mostly a “day time” checkpoint. They parked their teams anywhere they found an opening and took a rest. When the Iditarod restart moved to Sunday, Skwentna became a “night time” checkpoint with mushers arriving with headlamps blazing. This necessitated more organization since parking up to 65 teams simultaneously on a dark frozen river would have made for massive traffic snarls. As luck, or fate would have it, the Delias had invited Todd & Scott Silver from Tacoma to visit and volunteer in 1993. The brothers were first introduced to the Iditarod because they manufacture the Iditarod Musher’s Diaries and Checkpoint Sheets on their Rite in the Rain All-Weather paper and got swept up in the Skwentna Checkpoint hospitality. Joe and Rob, the long time checkers, welcomed the Silvers to organize the fray and each year since the Skwentna River Crew has grown to operate what is effectively the “Grand Central Station” of Iditarod checkpoints. Joe retired from checking and Rob passed away but their tradition continues. The Silvers now snowmachine in with a crew of 15 who compact the 3 football field sized checkpoint, lay out 70 hay bales in a herring bone fashion, auger water holes into the river ice, alphabetize tons of dog food bags, hang welcome banners and flagging and eagerly await the first bobbing headlamp. Meanwhile the Sweeties continue to cook up a storm and serve some of the best food on the trail.
The Delia’s Skwentna legacy lives on and mushers will enjoy the same warm “Welcome to Skwentna” greetings and hospitality as they drop their snow anchor under the Skwentna Checkpoint banner. To Joe and Norma: Thanks from all of the Iditarod family including the Sweeties and River Crew!
(Submitted for the 2012 Race Guide)
By Kristin Bacon, submitted for the 2012 Race Guide
My experience with volunteering for the race is prepping for and participating at the Skwentna Checkpoint. My first opportunity was in 2005. Joe and Norma, and their home in Skwentna, is such a huge part of that. Every year they so graciously open their doors to the organized chaos of the Iditarod events. It’s truly amazing how all the folks that show up in Skwentna instantly unite as a team to make it happen. We’re always ready by the time mushers arrive. It is inspiring and exciting to be a Skwentna Sweetie!! I feel very fortunate to be a part of it, and I wear my Sweetie gear with pride. Joe and Norma, thank you! Kristin Bacon
From Cyndy Fritts, Skwentna Sweetie, Submitted Feb.2012
Joe and Norma Delia have opened their home and organized their own crew of volunteers at Skwentna since the race began. This checkpoint is unique in that it is at a family home rather than a lodge or village along the trail. The race has changed and evolved over the years and so has the checkpoint. But there was a constant thread throughout those years – Joe and Norma’s whole-hearted hospitality. The Delia home has a plaque above the front door that reminds us to be hospitable to strangers. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2) I don’t think Joe or Norma ever once needed reminding. It simply is who they are. Those of us who have had the opportunity and honor to volunteer at the Skwentna Checkpoint have been blessed abundantly. Those who have served understand. It’s one of those, “you had to be there” experiences.
The Delia home bustles with activity as the Skwentna Team decends each March. The team is comprised of “Sweeties” and “River Crew” and they work in tandem to provide a warm welcome to Skwentna. The River Crew prepares the river in advance and once the first team arrives they work tirelessly through the night checking and parking dog teams, and providing hot water on the river. The Sweeties dish up the Delia’s trademark brand of hospitality. Iditarod officials, vets, press, mushers and the crew all share in the warmth of the checkpoint cabin throughout the race. The River Crew, fondly referred to as the “Darlings”, venture north each year from the Tacoma area, with the core group returning year after year. Lifelong friendships have developed over the years as Sweeties, Darlings, and their families gather at a place that is special to us all, the Skwentna Checkpoint.
My fondest memory from the “old days” of the race, is laying in bed upstairs in the Delia home, which is now the checkpoint cabin, and listening to Joe and the “old timers” sitting around the table downstairs. Names like Herbie Nayokpuk, Joe May, Joe Reddington, Emmitt Peters and Jerry Austin come to mind. We would lay there in a state between consciousness and sleep, listening as they reminisced and swapped stories all night. My all-time, favorite memory though, is the year the Skwentna Sweeties won the Dodge Dash. A “packed house” of Race officials, media, Dodge Execs and spectators alike, all shared in the frivolity. It was pretty anti-climatic when Joe Garnie, the actual first musher, pulled into Skwentna a few hours later!
Sadly, Iditarod 2011 marked the last year that the Delias would host the checkpoint. 2012 marked Joe’s 82nd birthday and the Delia’s recent move onto the road system. As Norma has said, it was time. The stage has been set for the Checkpoint Family, two generations of Sweeties and River Crew, to continue what Joe and Norma started years before. It harkens back to a by-gone era of Alaskan open-door hospitality. As the race and checkpoint grew and changed over the years, the Delias adapted and found even more ways to extend hospitality. Joe and Norma have been the heart of the checkpoint and will be sorely missed. Joe will always be remembered for his infectious laugh and tales of adventure, and Norma for her wit. We have some mighty big boots to try and fill. Young or old, newcomer or veteran, we are honored to be able to continue their legacy. By Cyndy Fritts, Skwentna Sweetie
From Keegan Fritts submitted Feb. 2012
I began heading to the Skwentna Checkpoint as a youngster, year after year from “town,” the big city of Anchorage. Sharing the duty of Skwentna Taxi with my older brother Zach, was an adventure the two of us looked forward to every March. As the years grew, and so did we, the responsibilities of our time at the Skwentna Checkpoint became more “Efficiency Driven”- with the introduction of the “River Crew” aka “The Darlings!” With a river bend parked to the gills with Teams, the Darlings began implementing the infamous “Herring Bone.”
The Darlings helped where they were needed, and brought entertainment too! All the while, Joe Delia and my late Father Robbie Fritts would tag team checking in dog teams – the River Crew organized their own area, and brought radios! Skwentna in the heat of the night became Grand Central Station, via one frequency.
My experience at the Skwentna Checkpoint has been an opportunity to be re-grounded each year. I get to remember the important things in life. For all who have been, you’d agree that even the Landfill in Skwentna is an Angelic place! My belief is because of Joe and Norma presence, this land has been blessed.
Joe & Norma Delia have passed on a living trust…The parameters are: Love thy Neighbor, Love thy Vet, Share your experience with all! I feel an immense honor and privilege to have helped encapsulate the Skwentna Checkpoint, as a Timeless Legacy…
Keegan Fritts, Second Generation Checker
My husband, Charles and I were the teachers at Skwentna School in 1999-2000 (the last year the school was open, unfortunately). It was our first year in Alaska and we were so excited about our new adventure. We always looked forward to mail days (Tuesday and Thursday), when we would make the trip across the river to the post office to get the mail. Joe was always there with a smile and a story. He always made us feel welcome and his beagle, Mack, was a playmate for our black lab. Everyone knew, trusted, and loved Joe Delia. He was Skwentna to many. Joe and Norma were always kind and helpful and we wish we’d had more time there with them. Joe will be missed by so many. Our love and condolences to Norma.
From Karyn Lawson
Image of Joe and Mack, courtesy of Albert Townshend
From Joe May, 5/3/2014
Our trap lines met on the south verge of Mt. Yenlo..his from the west, mine from the east. A turn around place for both of us with a grand view of the Alaska Range, the Yentna River, and the Skwentna valley..before the first Iditarod and even before Norma. What I’ll remember best is sharing a thermos of coffee, some badly rolled Bugler, and the profound silence that brought us both to the place. Maybe I’ll catch up with him there again one day.
Articles About Joe
From Glenn Cantor
He’s a tough guy. At one point this winter, there was 3 feet of overflow water on top of the ice of the river. The mail arrives at the airstrip on the other side of the river, and Joe’s job is to pick up the mail. Pick it up he did. He pulled on his chest waders, towed a canoe behind him to put the mail into, and walked a couple hundred yards through the nearly waist-deep ice-cold water to bring back the mail. And he’s 80 years old.
Joe grew up in Louisiana but ran away from home at age 12. He wandered around and eventually ended up in the Yukon Territory, where he was thrown out for vagrancy. He came to Skwentna more than 60 years ago, in 1948, built a log cabin (he had no idea how–he just figured it out by trial and error), and started a trap line. For food, he learned to hunt moose and fish for salmon.
About 5 am, when we were done examining the thousand or so dogs at this Iditarod checkpoint, we fell asleep in the lobby of the post office. Joe came in promptly at 8 am, told us to wake up in case customers came in (they didn’t), and told us stories for several hours. And there’s a lot of stories that he can tell!
Images from Jeff Schultz.