Meet the woman who makes sure K300 dogs are ready to race

Jackie Klejka wears her signature K300 hat while holding her indoor dog Jersey inside her Bethel home, which is heavily decorated with sled dog paraphernalia. Klejka has been coordinating the K300 veterinary program since 1993. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur/KYUK)

In sled dog racing, dog care is key. There’s no physician for the mushers during the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race, but there is a team of volunteer veterinarians flying up to ensure the dogs are safe to run. A vet checks each dog before the race, at the checkpoints, and after the teams cross the finish. This essential program has come together for nearly 30 years largely through of the efforts of one woman.

Jackie Klejka loves dogs. Currently, she owns the least number of dogs that her family has had in decades: only six.

“Pretty low-key dog yard,” Klejka said, unchaining the dogs from their homes. “Just sweet old guys, and a couple mid-life younger guys.”

The dogs are retired. The ones that can still compete were given to local kennels and to Jackie’s oldest child, Jessica, who’s building a kennel of her own. As Jackie pets the dogs, she’s wearing what she always wears: a K300 hat, a dog pendent necklace, and a sweatshirt with dogs racing across it.

“This is my normal thing,” Jessica said, laughing. “It’s who I am more than anything. I love animals and people. I always say that people have to come first because who’s gonna take care of the animals?”

The answer is Jackie. She arrived in Bethel with her family in the fall of 1992 as a veterinary technician. A few months later, she was flying with the race vets to the K300 Tuluksak checkpoint while pregnant with her third child.

“When we went to land, it had been so windy on the way there that everyone in the plane was sick except for me,” Jackie said, proudly. “And I had been eating crackers the whole way, because I did not want to be the only one that wasn’t feeling well when we landed.”

Jackie calls that first race “wonderful” and has been coordinating the K300 veterinary program for the nearly three decades since. During that time, she’s seen dog care improve.

“You can’t mush with dogs that aren’t very well taken care of. It just won’t happen,” Jackie explained. “They just won’t go.”

Teams are better wormed and vaccinated, mushers have refined their run/rest schedules, and the dog food is made for elite athletes. The gear has advanced too: from more durable booties, to lines that don’t tangle as easily, to more efficient sled runners, brighter headlamps, and warmer dog coats. The dogs have also changed. Bred for speed instead of work, the dogs are smaller.

“It’s not the same look as those old guys that were real fluffy and really all seem to be really, really big,” Jackie said.

These big work dogs formed the beginning of the Klejka kennel. Then, a dentist was leaving town and needed a home for his mushing team. When asked how many dogs the dentist gave them, Jackie said: “Four and a half, we’ll say, because one was really old.”

The kennel eventually grew to 22 dogs. Jackie’s husband began competing in local races, and their seven children were raised in the sport.

“Everyone had a job, every single child,” Jackie said. “Usually two teams were going out of our driveway. They had no time to get in trouble as teenagers.”

The six oldest children competed in the Junior Iditarod, and the eldest is training for her first Iditarod this year. She’s also returning to the K300 as a race veterinarian.

The hard work of raising a kennel built Jackie’s family into a team, and her children, she says, into better people, learning to work together and care for something outside themselves.

“Bethel is a doggie town,” Jackie observed.

Their neighborhood had nine kennels.

“I think that really encourages you and helps you with your team when you see other dogs going out,” Jackie explained. “And you know, oh, the weather is good because Dr. Crevens is getting on his dog sled. Or Myron would call and say, ‘We’re heading out today to go 30 miles.’”

Myron Angstman is a Kuskokwim 300 founder and has been one of the Klejkas’ strongest supporters.

“Myron would call and ask if my bucket blew away,” Jackie remembered. “And all I would hear was, ‘Did your bucket blow away?’ And I would say, ‘It sure did.’ And he’d just hang up the phone. And I’d be like, ‘You know what, somebody else had their bucket blow away today. I can do this.’ Because it was a struggle just to keep going in those early days.”

What kept her going was Bethel’s strong mushing community. A community that shared expertise, dog food, gear, moral support, and a winter of local races.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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