Years of training, tons of support and one wrong turn led to Jeremiah Klejka's victory at the Junior Iditarod Feb. 27.
Someone else's wrong turn, that is.
"I didn't even realize it for a long time that I was in first but then everyone on the trail was congratulating me as I passed and I was like - what are you talking about?," Klejka. "I thought I was in third."
Early in the race Klejka and his younger brother Jesse, who was running the family's "B team," had a run-in that seemed to have cost Klejka the lead.
"My brother's team knew my dogs a little too well and decided to come over," Klejka said. Jesse's dogs dove under his line and "tried to keep right on going." By the time the brothers had sorted the dogs out and gotten back on the trail two other teams had pulled into the lead.
Still, Klejka had a smooth run - the trail was fast, his lead dogs Bucky and Autumn behaved perfectly. The windy weather favored dogs raised in the windy Y-K, and the whole team looked to be in good shape.
"Everything went according to plan," Klejka said. He figured he certainly had a lock-down on third place. Until he got within about six miles of the finish line.
The two teams that had been in lead had blazed down the trail ahead of Klejka and on top of each other - in the rush of racing each other they hadn't noticed the trail marker telling them to turn and ended up going about 20 miles in the wrong direction.
Trucking speedily along on his own, Klejka saw the critical marker, made the correct turn and rolled into the Willow Lake finish with all 10 of his dogs in first place. He finished the 150-mile course in 1 day, 11 hours and 46 minutes, crossing the finish line at 11:46 a.m. - nearly a half hour ahead of runner-up Anitra Winkler of Cantwell.
"I went into it hopeful I would win but when I actually won it really surprised me, I didn't see it coming," said Klejka, who finished fourth last year after coming home ninth as a rookie in 2009.
This is 17-year-old Klejka's final shot at the Junior Iditarod - as of next year he'll be too old to compete - and was the focus of his year in training. Every day he'd come home and take the team out for a 40 to 50-mile run, forsaking other sports like wrestling or basketball.
His big win is not only a testament to his personal commitment to the sport, but a whole family and town. All of Klejka's six brothers and sisters are involved with the team in one way or another - everyone has a job, from watering and feeding to taking the dogs out on runs. Klejka's father maintains the equipment and gets everyone where they need to go and his mother Jackie, experienced working in veterinary clinics, looks after the dogs. Local veterans including Peter Kaiser and the Myron Angstman help out the young mushers and ACE cargo made sure the whole team arrived at the race in time. Legendary Iditarod veterinarian Bob Sept sponsors the Klejka's team as well as helping keep them healthy and musher Linwood Fiedler put everyone up at his place in Willow.
Now that he's won the big prize for his age group - and collected a $5,500 scholarship to college and a pile of gear including a new dog sled, a sleeping bag, and ax and a laptop - Klejka is uncertain where dog mushing will take him next. He'll compete in the Bogus 150 next year and is looking ahead to attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks after graduation, where he's thinking about majoring in biology.
But while Jeremiah's Junior Iditarod reign will be over as of this year, chances are good he won't be the last Klejka the race has seen. Eldest sibling Jessica won the race in 2008, and younger brother Jesse, 16, won sixth place his first time running.
As to whether he'll someday take the leap to long-distance mushing at races like the Iditarod or Yukon Quest, Klejka hasn't ruled them out.
"I'm pretty happy where I am now. They're incredibly huge commitments - but it seems like it would be amazing to that," Klejka said.
Because while the hours on the trail can get lonely, "It's great to be out with the dogs and it feels really good to be out on your own."
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