Donna Carol Kleckner, known to most as Carol, died in her sleep early the morning of Monday, January 11, 2021. She died peacefully at home after a long illness, surrounded by her partner, Don Kiely, and their three remaining Alaska huskies.
Carol was born on December 16, 1953, in Martins Ferry, Ohio, near St. Clairsville where she lived for the first 18 years of her life. She attended St. Clairsville Elementary School and St. Clairsville High School. She was always very athletic, and in high school played volleyball and basketball, and ran track. She was a cheerleader in grades 8 to 12 as well.
She graduated from Elon College (now University) in North Carolina, working her way through school, and played intercollegiate basketball. For her junior year, she transferred to Slippery Rock State College in Pennsylvania, then returned to Elon to complete her undergraduate education. She took a full load of classes every semester and had an almost full time (many, many weekend hours!) gig at Alamance Memorial Hospital as the front desk receptionist along with summer waitressing jobs. She graduated in 1976 with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and a minor in Chemistry.
One incident foretold Carol’s involvement in rescuing animals. Jan was going to college about 30 miles away from Elon. They had a rare day to visit and were going to Raleigh to a fancy new mall to shop. Carol was driving her brown ’70 Nova and spotted a dog on the side of I-85. She swerve-stopped and we lugged this poor lumpy huge sad thing into her back seat and took it to the nearest vet. Right as he was telling them that she was too far gone to be saved, she aborted seven dead puppies in yellow froth on the metal examination table. So sad!!! They didn’t shop that day, but because of Carol that dog and babies got some big time final love.
Carol then moved to Colorado, where she worked as lab manager in a natural resources chemistry lab, GeoLabs, in Golden. She had happy memories of her years at the lab, with lots of great stories about her coworkers. During this time, she also worked on a master’s in Environmental Geochemistry at the Colorado School of Mines. She then studied at the University of Colorado at Boulder—ironically at the same time her eventual Alaskan partner, Don, was there, studying for his MBA, but neither remembered having met there. While still working at GeoLabs, Carol graduated with a teaching certificate in secondary science.
During her time in Colorado, Carol designed and built an earth-shelter, passive-solar house in the mountains near Nederland, Colorado. She contracted out the shell of the house, but finished it with the help of good friends. She lived there for three years before coming to Alaska in 1985, when a friend came back from a summer in Alaska and told Carol that she’d love the north.
After working for a summer near Denali National Park, Carol returned briefly to Colorado and then came back to Alaska, where she has lived ever since. She lived in Healy, Alaska, for five years, working as a substitute teacher during the winter and a waitress in Denali during the summer. She and her soul-dog Elliott lived in a 12×16 cabin without running water or indoor plumbing.
Later, Carol got a job in the environmental and chemistry laboratory at Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska. For more than two years, she worked four weeks on and two weeks off. During her off weeks she traveled extensively. During her time at Red Dog she saved up enough money for the down payment to buy a nice four-bedroom, three-bath home on Birch Hill in Fairbanks, and opened a bed-and-breakfast.
While she ran the B&B, Carol bought a Cessna 150, and got her private pilot’s license and instrument rating. She was in heaven flying all over Alaska, year-round, and took a lot of B&B guests up one at a time. They saw many moose, wolf packs, and various small critters, reveling in the beauty of Alaska.
After six years she sold the B&B and returned to dry-cabin living for two years, renting on Love Road off of Chena Hot Springs Road east of Fairbanks, while looking for a house to buy. That’s when she found the A-frame house near the village of Ester, where she would live for the rest of her life. It was the perfect location for her and her growing pack of sled dogs: five wooded acres, wonderful (and tolerant!) neighbors, and great trails nearby. Her partner, Don, was one of her neighbors, and that helped them grow close quickly, although they actually met through dog mushing and skijoring activities.
Carol always had a deep love of dogs. In her earliest years, the family lived in a small apartment, so she couldn’t get a dog. Her sister Jan reports that she and Carol were walking uptown one day, when a scruffy, tan, excited stray puppy found HER. Carol coaxed it back to their small apartment and begged “Can we keep it?????????” That’s when they learned from their parents that you can tell how large a dog will become with the size of its puppy paws. Jan has no idea what happened to that darling fluff muffin but soon after they were driving to Cleveland to pick up the non-shedding, apartment-sized purebred with a fancy AKC registered name. It was HER dog. That’s how Gulliver, a West Highland White Terrier, came into Carol’s life. She immediately dropped all her extracurricular school activities and spent every moment she could with Gulliver. From then on, dogs were a major part of her life.
During her time at the B&B, sled dogs began arriving in Carol’s life, coming mostly from friends who mushed and skijored. Robin was her first sled dog, followed quickly by several others. She also started learning about sled dog sports, and she and her dogs began competing in and winning races. At that point she had many years of experience with dogs of all kinds, and had developed a deep empathy that gave her an uncanny ability to sense what might be wrong with an unhappy dog or what would help it excel.
Carol was never interested in breeding dogs, since there are far too many dogs who are born and then abandoned. As she looked to increase the size of her kennel, she noticed that the Fairbanks North Star Borough animal shelter regularly had sled dogs. At the time, sled dogs were normally euthanized not long after arriving at the shelter; conventional wisdom was that if a sled dog was dumped at the shelter, there must be something wrong with it. As a result, people adopted very few sled dogs from the shelter.
Carol spotted a dog at the shelter, Pippi (Longstocking), who was personable, healthy, and seemed eager to please. She decided to take a chance on Pippi, who turned into one of Carol’s best mushing and skijoring dogs ever. That opened Carol’s eyes to the wonderful sled dogs who passed through the shelter, many of whom were dumped for reasons that had little to do with the dogs’ abilities and interests. Some were too slow for a sprint musher’s fast team, but proved to be an amazing distance dog, or vice versa. Some had easily solved health or behavior issues that the person dropping off the dog didn’t have the time, money, interest, or experience to resolve. Sometimes the former owner fell ill and could no longer take care of dogs. And many other reasons.
With the permission and blessing of the shelter management, Carol started taking groups of dogs out regularly and running them to see how they would do in a mushing or skijoring team. She tested them in lead and other positions. Even in a run of just two or three miles, she was able to assess each dog’s potential. Then she would write up a report on each dog and post it to the various sled dog email lists around Fairbanks. She would spend countless hours on the phone or in person with people interested in a dog, helping them feel confident in their decision. And in many cases, she dissuaded a match that wasn’t right for whatever reason, often redirecting people to another dog that would be a better choice.
In 2003, Carol and several other wonderful sled dog people in Fairbanks started Second Chance League, a 501(c)3 nonprofit sled dog rescue organization that continues to this day. Until shortly before her death, Carol continued to facilitate matching people with dogs, or helping abandoned dogs find their way to safety.
Over the years, Carol had a direct hand in well over 500 hundred dogs finding their perfect, permanent, loving homes.
At its peak, Carol and Don’s kennel had 31 wonderful dogs, almost keeping to their decision to cap the size at 30 dogs! Most were Alaskan huskies, and most were working sled dogs, although a few chose not to be, most notably Ivy. (Ivy was always happiest as a couch potato and riding in the car.) Together, Carol and Don fostered and then inevitably adopted more than 20 dogs that came through the animal shelter.
In recent years, Carol was active in a variety of organizations and activities. She was an endurance athlete, running the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks more than 20 times and running ultramarathons in several places elsewhere in the United States. She participated each year in the Alaska International Senior Games, doing running, cycling, bowling, and other sports. She always loved music and had a lovely soprano singing voice, singing in the local Peace Choir for many years. She took up the ukulele and harmonica, and played with various groups in Fairbanks.
Carol also loved to travel. Trips in the last couple of years included visits to New York City and California to visit her dear niece Greta, an established singer/actor. In NYC they went to every Broadway performance they could get tickets to, and in California Carol was able to see Greta perform as Patsy Cline in Always…Patsy Cline.
One thing Carol loved more than almost anything else was camping and remote-cabin trips in Alaska with good friends and everyone’s dogs. It was a sad day when she grew too ill to even hike anymore.
For several years she was a tour guide with Northern Alaska Tour Company, filling her tours to the Arctic Circle, Coldfoot, and Denali National Park with stories of her life in Alaska and introducing her guests to the wonders of this place. During this time she also became an avid aurora chaser and skilled photographer.
Through all these activities, Carol touched many lives and made many dear friends in Fairbanks and around the world.
Carol was preceded in death by her father, Donald Stewart Kleckner. She is survived by her mother, Audrey Loretta Kleckner, in St. Clairsville, Ohio; her sister Karen Whitehouse in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky; her sister Janice Kleckner in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and her niece, Greta Kleckner, in New York City.
– Big thanks to several of Carol’s dear friends and family members for suggestions, feedback, final editing, and photos!
Thank you to the folks who have asked about donations in Carol’s memory. Here are the charities that Carol wanted to support:
- Second Chance League
- Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks
- American Civil Liberties Union
- The Folk School in Fairbanks
- Fairbanks North Star Borough Animal Shelter
- Northern Alaska Environmental Center
- Fairbanks Concert Association
- Friends of Creamer’s Field
- Running Club North of Fairbanks
- Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks
- Tanana-Yukon Historical Society
- KUAC Public Radio Station
A couple of these don’t have obvious ways to do online donations, but presumably any would take checks by mail. Full disclosure: SCL is completely volunteer run, and I (Don) am the president of the board, and I’m on the staff of The Folk School.
A couple of people asked about hospice. They entered the picture relatively late, after Carol and I talked about donations. The only way to donate to them seems to be through the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital Foundation, and you can direct the donation to hospice. (That link is as direct as I can make it without going too far down a rabbit hole; scroll down to hospice.)
On behalf of Carol’s wonderful memory, thank you!
[Edited to add: Carol’s death notice was just published on Legacy.com, which the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner uses for its obituaries. There is a link to “send flowers,” but I have no idea where they’d be sending flowers to. At best we’ll have an online celebration of her life soon, and hopefully an in-person celebration some many months from now when it is safe. Don’t send flowers anywhere!]