Wasilla's 'Ice Road Trucker' follows challenges to fame

K.t. McKee
Lisa Kelly, who has gained fame through the History Channel's "Ice Road Truckers" show, introduces her miniature horse "Rocky" to audiences during a taping of two CNN shows Nov. 19, 2010, at her Wasilla home.
K.T. MCKEE / Anchorage Daily News
Wasilla resident Lisa Kelly is interviewed about being an "Ice Road Trucker" during a taping of CNN shows "Road Warrior" and "My City, My Life" Nov. 19, 2010, at her Wasilla home.
K.T. MCKEE / Anchorage Daily News

WASILLA -- She quickly rattled off for the TV crew her reasons for wanting to be a truck driver.

"One of the reasons I like driving trucks so much is the freedom I get from it and the challenges I have to face," Lisa Kelly said to the camera in her Wasilla living room on a recent Friday morning. "Every time I overcome a challenge, I feel stronger for it because I have to be more creative to solve problems that the guys can solve with brute strength."

Then, just as quickly, she realized her statement was probably too long for a typical broadcast sound bite.

"Do you want me to shorten that a little?" Kelly asked Anchorage's Emmy-winning photographer and producer Russell Weston as he interviewed her for two upcoming CNN shows.

Weston confirmed the need for another take, which was only the beginning of multiple repetitive shots required during eight straight hours of filming for "Road Warrior" and "My City, My Life" features on future CNN broadcasts.

Weston had Kelly pretend to pack clothes and food, kiss her miniature horse "Rocky" goodbye, and throw her large duffel bag into the seat of her recently paid-off Kenworth 10-wheeler before shooting her riding her Tennessee walking horse to Metro Cafe on Lucille Drive for coffee and a snack.

He then had her drive her rig up and down Seldon Road to get some shots of her "heading to work" before finishing the day with Kelly flying down the aisles of the Wasilla Pet Zoo on her in-line skates behind Rocky, who was attached to her with a special harness.

As one of the stars of the History Channel's "Ice Road Truckers" show and its most recent spinoff "IRT Deadliest Roads" filmed in the treacherous mountains of India, the 29-year-old motocross racer has learned to be more media savvy over the last two years of having cameras in her face and private life.

Having filmed Kelly once before for "Inside Edition," Weston said he's been impressed with the way she's handled herself in a male-dominated profession and how she hasn't let her recent celebrity go to her head.

"She's a tiny little thing, and some of that work is really tough," he said. "To watch her figure out how to do things to her advantage is pretty amazing. She's a smart gal."

Sarah Williams, Kelly's best friend from her childhood in Sterling, said as she waited to accompany Kelly on the trail ride to Metro Cafe that she's not surprised by her friend's popularity.

"I always knew she was going to be famous someday," Williams said. "When she was little she wanted to be a movie star, so I guess she got that dream in a way."

Kelly said it wasn't the fame and fortune of Hollywood that intrigued her as a child but being able to take on different roles, pretending to lead different lives -- escaping from the humdrum of life on the Kenai Peninsula.

She even dabbled with film editing and creating her own videos while in college.

But Kelly said she's actually pretty introverted and is just as happy out riding her horse Skye on quiet Valley trails or cuddling with her Aleut husband, Traves, while watching her favorite movie "Thunderheart."

Raised on a small farm in Sterling, Kelly said she's always been a bit of a tomboy and never felt being a girl should keep her from doing what she loved.

"I just get these crazy ideas and just go for it," she said, explaining that she was determined to earn her commercial driver's license to drive a truck by the time she was 23 -- regardless of being turned down by several trucking companies before Carlile Transportation Systems finally took a chance on her. "I didn't want to work in an office, and I didn't want to drive a school bus again. I wanted to be out there on the open road."

She wasn't satisfied driving around in circles in Kenai. She wanted to work the haul road from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. And she wouldn't take no for an answer.

"I had to fight to get on the haul road," the former tap dancer said. "Trucking to me was a career and a way to get out of gas station jobs and food service jobs. It was one of those careers that was in high demand, so I knew that if I became a trucker, I could get a job anywhere, anytime."

She had no idea, however, that she'd one day be risking her life driving ancient mountain passes in India, where a handful of motorists die every day.

Although she was excited to experience another part of the world, Kelly said she didn't realize how dangerous the two-month "Deadliest Roads" assignment would be until she arrived on scene with three others she'd worked with on the "Ice Road Truckers" shows.

"I didn't know what I was getting into because I had never even been out of the United States except for Canada and a cruise in the Caribbean. So when I got there, I was like 'Whoa. This is for real. People die on these roads all the time.' But I wasn't about to back out. To me, it was just another challenge to overcome."

Kelly said she believes she's gained a whole new level of respect from her male counterparts by handling the narrow, hair-raising routes in the Himalayas and not quitting when the going got tough.

Indeed. During one of the show's episodes when deadly rock slides threatened to shut down the infamous Rohtang Pass at 13,000 feet and strand the drivers, fellow trucker Rick Yemm expressed his admiration and affection for the petite blonde for leading the caravan to safety down the muddy road.

"Lisa's one helluva good truck driver, but I worry about her like a little sister," Yemm said.

Kelly said her husband, a fellow dirt biker who works on the North Slope, was relieved to have her back home after that trip. He doesn't want her to go back to India during the rainy season in January, as the show's producers are considering.

Not only will the roads be more slippery and fragile, but the truckers will be driving over treacherous mountain passes that reach elevations of 17,000 feet, Kelly said with a certain twinkle in her eye.

"I'm pretty stubborn," said Kelly, who has skydived seven times. "If I think it becomes too unsafe, I won't do it. But it's amazing to find out how much the human spirit -- and body -- can tolerate. And it makes coming home all that more sweet."

Find K.T. McKee online at adn.com/contact/kmckee or call 907-352-6711.