Skwentna was my first Iditarod checkpoint experience. Looking back I will long remember the hospitality of the “Skwentna Sweeties” that helped make it so memorable for me and all the volunteers and mushers.
The checkpoint is actually on the confluence of the Skwentna and Yenta Rivers. I arrived via Iditarod Air Force, and I was welcomed by a volunteer with a snow machine. My first time to ride one! We came through a small forest of snow-covered trees and there I saw an amazing organized pattern of straw bales and drop bags in alphabetical order stretching across the frozen river.
The checkpoint is actually the log home of Joe and Norma Delia. Joe has passed away, and Norma no longer lives here full time, so friends and family come in to help celebrate the Iditarod together as the Delia family once did.
As we waited for the first musher’s headlamp in the distance, Todd Silver and I spent some time talking about his friendship with the Delia family, and their reunion here each year. Todd and his brother started the Rite in the Rain paper company, and if you have seen the famous yellow vet notebooks, you understand how important that is.
With a live band playing and a bonfire going, we celebrated as the first headlamp was spotted on the frozen river. As the musher arrived, everyone sprang into action. A dog handler volunteer couple from Washington state led the team to the proper place on the ice, and vets descended upon the dogs to check them. It was amazing to see the organization and support that went into helping not only this first musher, but every single one that night.
Inside the warm log cabin, mushers that stayed a while hung their gear on hooks, walked in, and were handed a hot towel to wipe their faces then they could get in line for a hot meal. Some, like Aliy Zirkle, Larry Daugherty and Mary Helwig, opted to walk up the log staircase to rest on the the floor a while before heading out to Finger Lake.
The Skwentna Sweeties had a great system for helping the mushers sleep. Each person was handed a cone with a letter on it and then volunteers wrote their name down on the clipboard next to the letter. They were asked to keep the cone near their heads as they slept since the cabin is quite dark and cramped upstairs. When they needed to wake up, the volunteer would find their cone and gently wake them to get up and head out to their team. There were many mushers sleeping on the floor upstairs resting through the night, so this system really helped the Skwentna Sweeties provide the wonderful hospitality they are known for… without waking up the wrong person!
Throughout the night, mushers arrived and stayed a while, or signed in and left. The family and friends were anxiously awaiting one special musher…rookie Kristin Bacon. Kristin was a Skwentna Sweetie a few years ago, and it was that experience that motivated her to take up mushing and lead a team to Nome. Her friends were thrilled to be under the banner to support her dream.
Kristin was so surprised as she pulled in under the Skwentna banner in the night and saw the huge sign that was made to celebrate her courage and determination. She took care of her team, and came in to rest and share stories from the trail with her former “sweeties”.
I watched all night and into the next morning as mushers prepared their teams and took off on the river towards Finger Lake. One of the last to leave was rookie musher Noah Pereira, who took a moment to smile and wave at me as he headed out. He looked calm and happy…doing what he loves to do.
Next up? A flight to Nikolai through the Alaskan Range.