Born and raised in Bethel, Jessica Klejka is getting ready for her first Iditarod this weekend. The sled dog race to Nome is a long way from her first run, which took place as a four-year-old, pulled by a single dog in the Sunday races that the Kuskokwim 300 Race Committee used to put on in Bethel.
Klejka has run the local Bogus Creek 150 and has volunteered as a veterinarian for the Kuskokwim 300. She has run the Junior Iditarod, winning it one year, and placed fourth in last year's Kobuk 440.
Now living in Big Lake, Klejka took some time during her lunch break to talk to KYUK’s Krysti Shallenberger about her preparations and how she juggled her job, volunteering with the K300, and training for the Iditarod this year. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Krysti Shallenberger: Jessica Klejka. You must be pretty busy preparing for the Iditarod right now, and what are your preparations looking like and what do you have to do?
Jessica Klejka: We're pretty busy right now this time of the year. We got our food drops off for me and the dogs, and everything we needed on the trail was delivered to Anchorage and then is being shipped off on the trail. So we sent out 2,000 pounds of dog food and people food and gear, so that's a huge relief; that's over. Now we're just doing our final training runs, and packing the sleds, and figuring out little extra things here and there that I might need for me.
Shallenberger: What are you feeding your dogs?
Klejka: Well, we sent out chicken, chicken skins, beef, lots and lots of salmon. We cut up salmon into little hockey-sized pucks; snacks for the dogs. We feed them [kibble], they also get some beef liver, and then we do pork bellies as well.
Shallenberger: Not that I was stalking you on Facebook at all, but I did see that you seemed to have gotten a last minute gift of salmon, too. You were cutting up salmon strips.
Klejka: Yup. So my brother works for a company down in Sitka that's sponsoring us for this year and has been sending us a lot of salmon for the dogs.
Shallenberger: So tell me about your team. Who are your leaders and how long have you been training them for the Iditarod?
Klejka: So my lead dogs for this race are Radar, who is actually a dog from Myron Angstman. She's a young dog that we got from Angstman a couple of years ago. And then our other lead dog is Stella, who's from Pete Kaiser and is more of a veteran, and has ran with Pete a few times in the Iditarod. All year. We started training in early September on four-wheelers with the team and then have slowly transitioned to snow. We, like Bethel, had a lot of the winter we're praying for snow, but just here in the last month we've gotten a ton of snow. Actually so much snow that it's okay if it stops for a little bit. We've been breaking trail every time we go on our runs.
Shallenberger: And you have a full-time job as a vet. What is that like training for the Iditarod, balancing a full-time job, your husband, then you came out for the K300 to be a vet. What is that like? How do you do that?
Klejka: Yup. It's wild; I don't know if I recommend it. Very busy, very tired a lot of the time. I'm at work right now on my lunch break. But no, it's worked out very nice. My work has been very good at letting me take the time off for Iditarod, and the clients have been really understanding that I'm going to be on the trail, so they are all really excited to follow. And my younger sister Joan has come down in the last little bit to help me with the dogs. She cut meat for probably four days for us in preparation for food drops.
Shallenberger: What are your goals for Iditarod beyond just completing it?
Klejka: So obviously I would really like to make it to Nome, that's my first goal. And then my next goal is I have a really nice dog team. It's the best dog team I've ever driven, so I'm really impressed by them. And my other goal would be to race them to the best of their abilities so they are just a really happy, healthy, good-looking team at the finish line, but know that I did race them a little bit. And so, but it would be really nice if they are looking good, you know, later on in the race to maybe change up our schedule a little bit.
Shallenberger: So you grew up mushing. So your family is dog-crazy, to put it mildly. What was the first team you ever mushed in a race and what was that like?
Klejka: I'm pretty sure I was four or five when I did the one-dog race that the K300 used to sponsor, or the Sunday Fun Runs, that I did with our old lead dog Boots. But then our first real, actual camping race was the K300 sponsored Campout race when I was in seventh grade. And I'm pretty sure we got last place or second to last, but I got around the trail and camped with my dogs. So we've come a long ways since back then.
Shallenberger: So what past experiences have gotten you to this place, running your first Iditarod?
Klejka: Definitely all the races out in Bethel. I mean, I've done multiple Bogus Creek 150s when there's been no snow on the trail, trying to cross the river on the way to Tuluksak in the wind. Just a lot of good driving experience growing up in Bethel in a town that cultivates dog mushing. I think I really got my racing experience growing up in Bethel.
The Iditarod has its ceremonial start on March 2 in Anchorage. Also heading down the trail to Nome on Saturday are four other mushers from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: four-time K300 champion Pete Kaiser, his handler Niklas Wikstrand (who hails from Norway), Victoria Hardwick, and Aniak’s Richie Diehl.