Trained By Bethel Terrain, Rookie Jessica Klejka Finishes First Iditarod

Mar 18, 2019

Rookie Jessica Klejka mushes into the Takotna checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail on March 7, 2019.
Credit Zachariah Hughes / APRN

Musher Jessica Klejka completed her rookie Iditarod run Friday night with 11 dogs. She finished in 31st position after spending 12 days, 7 hours, and 12 minutes on the trail. Klejka grew up driving dogs in Bethel and dreaming of completing The Last Great Race. Now that dream has come true, and Klejka says that nothing could have prepared her for the experience.


Jessica Klejka: I’ve spent my whole life listening to dog mushers and wanting to do the Iditarod, and hearing about it and talking to everybody, but when you get out on the trail, you can’t even imagine. We covered so many different things: the deepest overflow, so much snow. We went over the Burn, where there is no snow, mountains, huge mountains coming from Bethel. We went over mountains, across rivers. There’s no way you can train to prepare for this.

KYUK: What was it like seeing these areas of the trail of Alaska for the first time?

Klejka: You have this picture in your head of what you think places look like. Like I went through the Burn, and the trees are burned; they’re black trees. Once you get through the part with no snow there’s some snow on the ground, so it was beautiful. And up ahead I saw what looked like a huge dog and I was like, ‘What in the world? Somebody lost a sled dog?’ And as we got closer [we saw] it was a huge, grey and white wolf in front of us. And he was just standing there, staring at the team, and then he ran. It was the coolest moment ever to be with the dogs, running through those burned trees, seeing that wolf. It was beautiful.

KYUK: This Iditarod has more women competing in ratio to men than any other Iditarod. You are one of those women. What is that like? What does that mean for the sport?

Klejka: I think it’s super awesome, super healthy. There were three women in the top 10 and they all finished with large, big teams: 11 dogs. Hopefully we’ll see this trend continue. It’s pretty cool. It’s a tough race, and it’s really only one of the sports out there where men and women compete equally. There’s not a women’s division and a men’s division.

KYUK: How is your team after that 1,000-mile run?

Klejka: They’re doing awesome! I finished with 11 dogs and I was so happy to see how excited they were at the finish. I don’t think you could be bonded more with a group of dogs than doing this race with them. They did a good job of getting me here. I asked them to do these things that were really difficult, but they were happy to do it, and it’s so awesome to see when you have a group of dogs that are like, ‘Yeah, we can do that. We’ll keep pulling your sled through the overflow.’

KYUK: This was your rookie Iditarod run, and you finished the race. Was there any point where you thought you might not finish?

Klejka: The super honest answer is that probably most of the race it was in my head that, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it to Nome.’ You get to McGrath and think you’re going to take your 24 [hour rest], and then it was a long ways to McGrath. And then I get to McGrath and I think, 'I just have this section to do,' and there were a lot of points where I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it to Nome.’ There’s a lot out there. But also we were in it to do good and have a good run with the dogs, and as long as they were doing well I was going to keep going to Nome, and they did great. It was more me just being nervous. It was a lot of unknowns as a rookie. There’s a lot you just don’t know and mentally it can be hard to keep going.

KYUK: Tell me about coming across the finish. You came across on Friday. What was that like? Who was there?

Klejka: It was exciting. You can see the lights of Nome for probably a good 12 miles, and the dogs saw the lights and sped way up and I was like, ‘Guys, we have a long ways to go.’ So we ran very fast for the last 12 miles in and it was so much fun. The whole town comes out and everyone honks and waves, and at the finish line so many Bethel people were there. It was so great to have so many representatives of our town and a lot of different Western Alaska people cheering, and my whole family was there. It was really fun.

KYUK: Was Pete Kaiser there?

Klejka: Yep. Pete was there. And one of my lead dogs is from Pete: Stella. I got Stella from Pete, so Pete was happy to see Stella cross the finish line in lead, so he went over and was visiting with Stella. It was pretty cool.

KYUK: What is that like for you? You and Pete both grew up in Bethel driving dogs. Now for him to win, what does that mean for this area?

Klejka: It’s so inspiring because he’s worked so hard. I’ve wanted to run Iditarod my whole life, and I remember the first year that Pete was going to run Iditarod, and I remember watching him, and I’m taking cues. And I remember watching the first one, and this year before the race I’m calling Pete and asking him questions, and he’s calm and knows the answers because he’s been there and done it before. It’s so inspiring and about time that someone from Bethel won the Iditarod.

KYUK: Is there anything you would want to say to someone from this area who’s thinking about running their first Iditarod?

Klejka: I think that coming from Bethel, the terrain that we train on, and the challenges of the wind and the ice and the no snow and the snow. I think if you are going to prepare for it, I think that Bethel is probably one of the best places to be preparing for the Iditarod. It’s a tough race. There were many humbling moments out there, but I think that if you’re a capable dog driver in Bethel then you definitely, definitely can have dreams and go and do the Iditarod.

KYUK: Congratulations and thank you for talking with us.

Klejka: Thank you.