Q & A with Charley Bejna
Seven-time Alaskan Iditarod dog sled musher from Addison
Photos courtesy of Charley Bejna
Every January since 2013 has found Charley Bejna in his home-away-from-home in Wasilla, Alaska. Every winter, the Addison resident and owner of Charley’s Landscaping Co. has competed in “The Last Great Race on Earth” — the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to the remote town of Nome. The rugged trail covers 1,049 miles of challenging terrain — through snow, ice and 60 mph winds. The route, once run by sled dogs to deliver vital serums during an outbreak of diphtheria in 1925, has become a test of grit and stamina for mushers and their elite teams of 14 hard-working dogs. Bejna, who lives with type 1 diabetes, runs a kennel of 25 dogs that he has raised from pups. He spends six months each year training the Alaskan Huskie-mix team for a battle against the elements in one of the wildest places on earth.
You grew up in Addison. Tell our readers a little about your early years.
CB: I’ve been here 46 years and I’ve seen the town develop. I started my landscaping business when I was in high school — at Addison Trail. I started cutting grass when I was about 14 or 15. Once I graduated high school I thought, well, maybe I could make a business out of it. And here we are. No college, straight into the real world.
What spurred your interest in sled dog racing?
CB: I followed the Iditarod even when I was a kid. Later, I went up to Alaska during the summertime with my dad and we visited a couple of sled dog kennels. We both liked dogs. Then I went up one winter for the Iditarod. I think that was 2005. I just thought, wow, how happy the dogs are. I liked seeing them run — the strength and the endurance, everything. I followed Iditarod for several years and then I met a guy named GB Jones. He said, “You should come out to my kennel some time and visit with the dogs.” I went out there and we went around this quarter mile loop with the dogs. It was really neat. He told me a lot of people needed help to handle and train their dogs, and said, “Well, why don’t you come and help?” I built a cabin on his property, helped him with training and did a couple of short races. Back then, never in a million years would I have thought I would even take part in the Iditarod — it’s a 1,049 mile race and it’s very tough on your body. But I did some of the qualifying races for Iditarod and thought, hey, maybe I’ll do it. And so I gave it a shot. (laughs)
What’s involved in being a musher?
CB: A lot of work. Right now in my kennel I have 25 dogs. A typical day is getting up early in the morning, feeding all the dogs and cleaning up after them. Then you hook up a team and you go out on a training run, whether it’s five miles or 10. It’s kind of like marathon training, where you start out at low miles and you work your way up to, say, 50 or 60 miles a day. Then you come back from your training run and you have to take all the dog boots off the dogs, and put all the dogs away, feed them and give them water. It’s basically a full time job. And you’re not getting paid for it. I usually take about five months away from my landscaping job to train the dogs. So it’s a big commitment. In the race, the first 200 or 300 miles are the toughest. You climb a lot of hills, with switchbacks and some really steep downgrades. You always have to be one step ahead because, if you’re not, you’re going to crash out and go over the side or into trees. You go through some really difficult terrain.
How would you describe people who get involved in mushing?
CB: I would say it’s somebody who likes the cold weather and who has endurance. Iditarod is a long race — you’re out there for 10 or 11 days. There are quite a few women, and, I tell you, they are very tough — and competitive. It’s a very strenuous sport. You have to be physically able to take care of your dogs. That’s the most important thing. You should be very knowledgeable about dog care, because anything can happen out on the trail. Let’s say a fight breaks out or a dog runs into the trees and gets caught up. You should know how to stitch up a dog and give proper medicines. It’s all self taught. You have to actually experience it live in motion and see things happen. I think that’s pretty much how you learn. You can train all you want, but it takes just 10 seconds for something to happen and you don’t have time to look at a book. I’d rather make a million mistakes and learn from them. You need good instincts. I’m still learning things to this day about dogs. The day you stop learning is the day you’re not having fun at it.
How many times have you entered the Iditarod and how far have you got?
CB: I’ve competed seven times and finished five times. My rookie year, in 2013, I didn’t have my dogs properly trained up. My best year was 2019. I got 24th place. When I first following Iditarod, they had 80,90 or 100 mushers but it has come down quite a bit. This year, I think there are 57 or 58. I figured I’d do it four or five times, but to do seven years in a row is an awful lot of work. It’s a great sport, but it has gotten to be really expensive. Just to run Iditarod takes between $25,000 and $35,000. It’s definitely an expensive hobby. We try to find sponsors to help us out. This year, financially, I didn’t see the sponsorships coming in and I just needed a break. There is prize money — the first 20 people get a prize. There’s a false belief out there that dog mushers are in it for the money. But there really is no money.
How would you describe your relationship with your dogs?
CB: I only have one breed and they’re all Alaskan Huskie mix. They are like my kids — I spend a lot of time with them, one-on-one time. They are just a very happy group. None of them really give me any problems. Everybody is pretty obedient. They do listen very well. It gives me a lot of happiness to see them happy and to take care of them. Basically, I’m the only one they have.
Do you raise them from pups?
CB: Yes. I’ve raised pretty much all the guys I have right now. You get to see who’s the runt of the litter, or who pays attention the most. It’s fun to go on walks with them when they’re young and let them run around the woods. You can see who is going to be a smart one or who’s the stronger one. There’s always that one dog who’s skittish of everything, and then there will be another who’ll just run through the water. I have two lead dogs, sisters, named Brown and Black. They’ve led me in the last three Iditarods — over thousands of miles. They are absolutely 100 percent hard-core working dogs. They listen to me and they never give up. They’ll go forever. And I have another pair of leaders, Yukon and Maple, and they’re the same way. Just very hungry. And they have to be in the lead. If you put them in another spot on the team they are pouty! These are dogs that are going to want to jump headfirst into water and get across to the other side. So that’s what makes them leaders. Sometimes you go through blizzard conditions and those two lead dogs are the ones that are going to keep you on the trail.
When do you start them on the sled?
CB: It depends on the dog. We might start them at a year, a year and a half, or maybe eight months. You kind of look at the dog, put the harness on and see what they’ll do. Ninety percent of the time they’re all going to run — it’s in their breed. They know they’re working dogs. People have misconceptions about that and think it’s some kind of abuse to make them run. That bothers me because the dogs are all treated very well. They eat better than I do! I feed them a lot of beef and salmon and chicken skins. And they get supplements, regular blood work and EKGs to check on their hearts. These dogs are athletes. The care that goes into raising a sled dog is amazing.
Have you had any scary experiences on the race?
CB: I’ve had a couple. The race goes across the coast for 50 miles or so. You’re out on the ice and there’s no shelter. It’s just me and the dogs. The wind’s blowing 60 mph, you have nowhere to go and you can’t see in front in blizzard conditions. It’s easy to give up. You have to keep your mind focused and keep the dogs moving. We all have to work as a team. There was one time when I got stuck out there and we couldn’t find the trail. I just stopped and we camped out for a while. Another musher came up behind me and led us on. I personally like to travel on my own, at my own pace, because you really have to run the race according to how your dogs are trained.
Has the sport changed in recent years? If so, in what ways?
CB: Yes, it’s gotten to be a fast race. The dogs are getting faster and the sleds are getting quicker and lighter. I don’t think the trail is as tough as it used to be — I don’t think we get the storms like we used to. I remember when we were all stuck out in the blizzards for seven to eight hours. And I don’t think we’re getting the snow like we used to — this year there’s a lot of open water.
Who takes care of your dogs when you’re back in Addison for the summer?
CB: I have a couple of other mushers who take care of my dogs. They feed them, clean up after them and make sure they’re all fine. I don’t have anybody else run my dogs. I’d just rather not. Dogs respond differently to other mushers — they know who their master is.
How do you feel about living in two places?
CB: I like it. You kind of get a little bit of both. I’m very fortunate. I have good employees and my family, my brother especially, watches over everything down here in Illinois for me. You have to have a good group of people you can trust to tak care of things when you’re not in one place or the other. It works out. I think I’m getting a little tired of going back and forth. I’d like to make one of those locations my permanent home. I’d still run dogs, but I’d scale back. I’m trying to focus on my business a little bit more. I started it from the ground up and I’m still liking it. I went though a lot of hard times, a lot of ups and downs. But I think that sticking with something and working at it just makes you a better person. Also, I’m single. It would have been nice to have a family, but I would have to take a step back from mushing. I wouldn’t want to put my family through that — always putting my dogs first.
Any advice for others interested in getting involved in dog sled racing?
CB: I would say make sure you have money. Get some sponsorships. And have a lot of dedication and patience. Owning animals is not like having a motorcycle or a boat, where you say, hey, I’m going to park my bike for two weeks and go on vacation. With dogs, it’s every day care, 365 days a year. You have to make sure you have that time and the dedication.
You suffer from diabetes. Does that affect your participation in the race in any way?
CB: I’ve been diabetic for 20 years and a lot of people thought I was kind of crazy for getting involved in Iditarod. But I’ve never used my diabetes as a crutch. Not that I’m out to prove anything, but I’m here to show people that just because you’re diabetic that doesn’t mean your life is over. Knock on wood, I haven’t had any major complications from diabetes. I think exercise is huge — I work outside a lot of hours in the summer, usually seven days a week. In the winter, I work my dogs every day, always moving. Diabetes slows me down a bit during Iditarod because I have to make sure my blood sugar is not too high or too low. During those two weeks it’s not controlled the best just because I’m not getting eight hours sleep a day, not even four hours. I’m running at night time, taking care of the dogs, massaging them. It does slow me down a little, but that’s OK. It’s better than not doing it. I tell everybody I think it’s a win when I just complete the race. It’s a huge task. Winning would be nice, but its not my goal. My goal is to finish with a happy dog team, happy and healthy. That’s a win for me, right there — in the end, I’m just some guy from Illinois!
High point of your dog-sledding experiences? Finishing the Iditarod. My low point was not finishing!
Beyond Iditarod, are there other races you’d like to run? I wouldn’t mind racing in the lower 48 — in Wisconsin or Michigan or Colorado — just to see different terrains and meet different people.
How would you describe yourself? I’m a workaholic. Very motivated. A go-getter. Definitely a go getter. And I’m very active.
Where would you most like to visit? I’d like to tour the United States. When I was younger my father went with me to different national parks. I like seeing what the US has to offer. There’s so much to see.
How can our readers find out about sponsoring you and your dogs in the race? There are photos of all the dogs on my website. Choose the ones you want to follow! www.iditarodmusher.com
Best place to eat when you’re back in Addison? Portillo’s!Edit Module