Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bethel Musher Wins Junior Iditarod

Seventeen year old Bethel musher Jessica Klejka (CLAY ka) is the winner of the 2008 Junior Iditarod! And is her hometown ever proud of her.

The Junior Iditarod is a 150-mile sled dog race for young mushers between the ages of 14 and 17 years old. It is held each year on the weekend before the start of the Iditarod and follows the first portion of the Iditarod trail, starting at Willow, Alaska. The young mushers are driving teams of 10 dogs.

This was Jessica’s fourth Jr. Iditarod. Last year she finished third. She has also run Bethel’s Bogus Creek 150 race twice, and this year she entered the Kuskokwim 300. Along with several veteran mushers, Jessica was unable to finish the K300 due to severe weather conditions, but plans to try again next year.

A senior at Bethel Regional High School, Jessica is the oldest of seven children. She has been driving her own team of dogs since she was about 10 years old. The photo to the right is one I took of her with Iditarod musher and Yukon Quest champion Aliy Zirkle at the banquet after the 2006 races, when Jessica ran her first Bogus 150. That was the year the race was delayed in starting by three days due to severe cold; it was 30 degrees below zero. Jessica was 15. That's one tough kid!

This year’s Jr. Iditarod had a field of 21 mushers and dog teams, and included some well known names in mushing circles. Two of her competitors were Quinn Iten, son of Iditarod musher and 2004 K300 champ Ed Iten; and Patrick Mackey, grandson of Iditarod legend Dick Mackey and nephew of Lance Mackey, winner of both the 2007 Iditarod and Yukon Quest (first musher ever to win both races in the same year) and this year’s Quest.

Last night Dutch and I went to the high school students’ production of Little Shop of Horrors, where we ran into Jessica’s mom, Jackie, and most of her brothers and sisters; her sister Jenny (all seven kids have names that begin with “J”!) had one of the leading roles, and did a great job. Jackie excitedly told us that Jessica was in the lead at that point, waiting out the 10-hour mandatory rest at the halfway point. She would be clear to leave at 2 a.m. She arrived at the checkpoint four minutes ahead of Patrick Mackey. That is a pretty small lead to start the 75 miles to the Finish Line. Jackie said the report was that her dogs were looking great, and that she was “smokin’ the trail” on the way out (musher lingo for going really fast).

This victory is especially meaningful for Jessica, as it comes after a year that has been challenging for her. Last summer she lost her best pal and main lead dog. The family had decided to breed her when she came into heat, and the pregnancy went well until the very end. Just as she was due to deliver the pups, she apparently threw a blood clot and died almost instantly. Jessica saw it happen and yelled for help. Bethel does not have a full-time veterinarian; the vet who comes here several days each month was not in town. Jessica’s dad, Joe, who is a physician, called two other physicians from the hospital and they did an emergency C-section on the dog right there in the dog yard. They managed to get the eight pups out alive, and five of them survived. The newborns were taken to another musher’s yard and placed with a dog whose pups were just being weaned. She accepted the new litter and nursed them into healthy young dogs. It was something of a miracle, but tough on Jessica, who had lost her leader.

She was able to acquire a new leader, and began training hard in the fall. Our front window faces the trail she takes out of town, and Dutch and I watched her going out almost every day, regardless of the weather. Often one of her younger siblings would be riding in the sled, or following on a snowmachine. Joe and Jackie and most of the kids are involved in mushing, and all of them love it. Mushing is a Klejka family affair.

As winner of the 2008 Junior Iditarod, Jessica takes home a prize of $5,000. That will be a welcome addition to her college fund. And on the horizon? Who knows, maybe one day she will win the Iditarod.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Huge Bethel congratulations to Jessica. She has worked very hard and is quite deserving. I look forward to seeing her mushing career continue with many more successes. She has certainly done her family and the city of Bethel proud. Again congrats to Jessica and the whole Klejka clan.

Dr. G

Sunday, February 24, 2008 9:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was so happy to hear about Jessica yesterday, especially after the K300 pull out.

Jackie was over the moon happy... I saw her yesterday too. Their family is great!

Monday, February 25, 2008 9:41:00 AM  
Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

Who knows, maybe one day she will win the Iditarod.

Then you -- and we, vicariously -- will be able to say "I knew her when..." Congratulations and all the best.

Monday, February 25, 2008 4:20:00 PM  
Blogger Arctic Eccentric said...

I don't know if everyone gets what a big deal and HUGE accomplishment this is. Most of the other competitors were from big-time, big-name mushing families with proven dog teams. The fact that Jessica pulled this off is a testament to her dedication and hard work. She makes us PROUD! I hope everyone gives her the pat on the back she deserves!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008 4:46:00 PM  

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