The tough man of the Yukon Quest

Yukon musher Kleedehn doesn't miss a step, despite loss of leg

Posted: Thursday, February 22, 2001

FAIRBANKS -- William Kleedehn is the toughest man in the Yukon.

It's a bold statement, given the competition, but his performance so far in the 2001 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race has been no less than inspirational.

Through hundreds of miles of the roughest ice conditions longtime Yukon River residents have ever seen, Kleedehn has righted hundreds of tips, spills and wipeouts. He's run alongside his team unfailingly. And he's kept up with some of the best dog mushers in the North in the process.

What makes that effort remarkable is the fact that the 41-year-old Kleedehn is doing it with only one leg.

Kleedehn lost his left leg below the knee in 1978 after he was hit head-on by a drunken driver while he was riding his motorcycle.

Kleedehn rarely talks about his prosthesis and how it affects his race, but after a long, hard day on the Yukon River Tuesday, the exhausted Kleedehn couldn't help but muse over the extra load his dogs had to carry.

"They have to overly compensate for me a lot more than other mushers," he said.

Kleedehn has developed methods for helping his dogs. He occasionally uses two ski poles to push along, but mainly he just has to be that much tougher than his competition.

With only one leg to help counterbalance a sled being rocked all over the place on rough trail, he ends up jamming hard onto his prosthesis and spends a lot of time off-balance. The artificial limb is nothing high-tech or lightweight either.

"They made them the same about 200 years ago," he said. "It's fairly heavy.

But the makers of the prosthesis probably didn't count on any of its wearers using it to help climb four of the toughest summits in dog mushing.

"Obviously I know sometimes there's situations where you have no business, but once you're in it ... there's no sense in worrying about things you can't change," the stoic Kleedehn said.

His tough exterior often belies his softer side, which reveals a man deeply devoted to his dogs and uncompromising in their care.

Kleedehn Tuesday bemoaned having taken his "puppies" over the rough ice.

"I'm not ever, ever going to run puppies, dogs I've raised from pups, through trail like that again," he said.

His wintertime exploits aren't the only physically challenging pursuits Kleedehn throws himself into. He has also run the Yukon River Quest, a summertime canoe race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Dawson City. He also earns money as an outfitter and highway maintenance worker.

Kleedehn is also raising his two sons, ages 11 and 9, at his Carcross, Yukon Territory home.

His best finish ever in the 1,000-mile race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks was in 1998 when he came in seventh. Barring any major setbacks, he's certainly in a position to top that this year.

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