Rookie Iditarod musher Jessica Klejka made it to McGrath, but before she did she spoke at the Iditarod Ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday about some of the fears and challenges facing her in the Alaska Range this week.
“I am nervous to go Finger Lake to Rainy Pass, Rainy Pass to Rohn just because I haven’t been there yet. And you know the sections we all hear about, my husband keeps saying 'they’re not that long of sections, you’re going to be fine.' But I keep talking, 'what about the steps?'" said Klejka. "He’s like, 'They’re not that long. It’s going to be a few minutes of sort of terror and you’ll be fine,'" Klejka said, laughing. "And we’ve actually had a lot of hill training this year with the dogs. It’s been good.”
Well now she’s made it through the steps and across the mountains. Klejka grew up in Bethel and now lives in Wasilla. She learned to mush in the Y-K Delta, and has returned to work as a K300 race vet since becoming a veterinarian. She spoke on Saturday with KNOM's Ben Matheson.
Ben Matheson: How’s your training been leading up to today?
Jessica Klejka: We’ve got a lot of good training the last few weeks. We got a lot of snow. We’re about an hour and a half north of Anchorage, so we got a lot of snow early on. There was a lot of ice and praying for snow, but we’ve been set for the last month.
Matheson: I’m glad to see you’ve got your K300 hat on. How do you take your experience mushing dogs years ago out in the Kusko to the great race today?
Klecjka: I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t grow up racing dogs in Bethel. I learned everything I know about racing from racing on the Kuskokwim, and from the people I grew up with out there. My biggest mentors are Myron Angstman, who’s out there, and then friends. And also giving me lots of tips: Pete Kaiser, who’s been top of the sport now for the last few years.
Matheson: How would you describe your mental state?
Klejka: Oh, right now I feel very stable. (Laughs). Growing up in Bethel, we trained on ice, and snow, and wind, and sand, and gravel. I’m just going to have to fall back on my skills, you know, whatever happens.
Matheson: Can you describe your team?
Klejka: We have two dogs that ran the Iditarod before, two leaders that will be going with me. One from Pete Kaiser, Stella, and then one from Jeff King named Bailey. And then the rest of my team is between one and two years old. They have all been racing with me. Radar is my main leader. She was my Kobuk 440 leader last year up in Kotzebue. She came from Myron as a young dog, now she’s our star. It will be a learning experience for me and the dogs. Hopefully we all make it to Nome.
Matheson: I know a lot of people are interested in your background as a practicing veterinarian. How does that translate to competitive dog mushing?
Klejka: Yeah. I always joke now that sometimes I overthink things because I’m a veterinarian. I love it. You know, I became a vet to learn about sled dogs. They’re my favorite in the whole world. They’re the healthiest animals out there. But yeah, my little vet kit. Every musher carries their little kit of "what if something happens?" If a dog gets a split or a cut or just anything on the trail, has diarrhea, everybody has their little kit of stuff. And mine, my husband is like, "yours is pretty heavy." (laughs) So definitely we’re sort of, "Okay, we’ve got to leave some stuff behind." I can’t take everything out there.
Matheson: How big is your extended team for your kennel and sled dog racing operation?
Klejka: Yeah. I’m the oldest of seven children, and all but my sister Jenny are here today. She’ll be in Nome, so I have to make it to Nome. Then we’ll all be together. For the most part, this year, it’s been me, and my sister Joan has been helping us train. Then we have a neighbor girl named Anna Koch who just got second in the Junior Iditarod. And she’s also been around too. But this winter, mostly me and Joan. It’s a big family operation.
Matheson: Well have fun, good luck, and we’ll see you down the trail.