By Matt Nelson
For many people, raising a family and pursuing a career is more than enough, but Kelly Maixner likes a challenge. Maixner grew up in Western North Dakota, graduating from Beach High School in 1994. He followed his brother up to Williston to study physical therapy at what was then UND-Williston. After getting his therapy assistant degree here, Maixner finished his undergraduate work at Montana State University and went on to dental school at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. He then moved to Alaska for a pediatric dental residency.
When he first moved to Alaska, Maixner found a new interest in racing sled dogs, which was one factor in his decision to stay up North. “This is the best environment in the world for that,” he notes. “And the best dogs in the world for that are up here, the best racers in the world.” Maixner decided to start his own team and try his hand at racing. “I got two females, and basically I’ve raised my team from those two females and their kids,” he explains. “Now I have forty dogs.”
The Iditarod, often called the “last great race on Earth”, takes sled dogs and their mushers through nearly 1,000 miles of the Alaskan wild. The wintry weather is wildly unpredictable in March, when the race takes place, and only the most qualified mushers are allowed to even join the race. Maixner and his team first completed the Iditarod in 2011. They went on to complete the race in 2012 and 2013, and he and the dogs are currently gearing up for the 2014 race, which begins March 1.
Maixner says that he was prepared to some extent for his first Iditarod because of where he came from. “Growing up in North Dakota, we were exposed to blizzards, so as far as that stuff goes I was fairly comfortable with it,” he says. “But growing up we always had snow machines or vehicles to be in,” he adds. “The first time I did the race, it was all crazy, and I thought I was going to die. Now, I’ve learned safety-wise what clothes I need to wear, and I’ve learned how to push on through those storms, and to put more faith in my dogs. They know a lot about what they’re doing.”
One of the biggest challenges for his first race was figuring out what to pack, so he got help from someone who had done it before. “I had a packing sheet from an experienced musher, and I basically packed the exact same things. He’s done this ten times, so that should be everything I need. I got help from experienced mushers, so going into the first Iditarod, I had some idea how to prepare.”
With each new race, Maixner encounters new experiences that help prepare him for the next race. “One year, I was out in the middle of a blizzard, in the Bering Sea, going across the sea ice, and it was blizzarding and I couldn’t see anything,” he recalls. “Every once in a while I would see a marker that told me I was on the trail, and I was just trusting the dogs to take me there. Once I got through there – that was the worst storm I’ve ever been in – so all the other bad storms I’ve been in are nothing compared to that.”
In addition to the Iditarod, Maixner makes another annual trip with its own set of challenges, traveling down to Haiti to provide dental care for children. As with the Iditarod, the first trip was the most hectic and unpredictable. “The first time I went down there, I had no clue what was going on,” he remembers. “People were yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand and trying to take my bags from me, and I had no clue what was going on. Now I can speak a little bit of the language, and I know where to go to get my ride that takes me way into the bush. It’s far away from Port-au-Prince, where I work. It’s nicely arranged now. The first time I was there, I thought I was going to die. Now, it’s a little better.”
As with his other projects, Maixner loves his work in Haiti, challenges and all. His wife, who is a nurse back home, goes with him and works as his dental assistant. They work out of a Catholic church, and now that they’ve been doing it for a while, they get to see the difference they’re making. “The first couple times down there, it was a little more of a mess,” he notes. “And it’s gotten better down there. When we first went down, we were just taking out teeth. That’s all. This last time down there I fixed as many teeth as I pulled. So it’s getting better; we’re making progress. We don’t just have to go down there and pull teeth to get kids out of pain. We’re actually fixing teeth before they get in pain.”
Maixner hopes students at Williston State College today will pursue their dreams, as he has. “Don’t be afraid to try new things,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to go out and go to Haiti or do the Iditarod. It usually works out in the end. Talk to people who have been doing these things; get some help to guide you through it,” Maixner recommends, “but the first thing is that you need to decide that you can do these things.”
“It’s tough to go out there and decide to do something like this, but the tougher part is to figure out how to do it,” he adds. “You can, but you just need to take it piece by piece. Don’t be afraid to just jump in and do anything you want to do. If somebody else has done it, you can do it.”
While he plans to continue with the annual Iditarod and Haiti trips, Maixner admits that he is probably going to take a break from trying those new experiences where he thinks he’s going to die, at least for now, while he has kids to raise. Does he think he’ll want to throw himself into some wild new situation again sometime? “Maybe when they graduate,” he suggests.
But that doesn’t mean Maixner is going to let himself get too comfortable. For example, he recently started his own dental practice. “Working for yourself is great,” he says. It will allow him to work more hours in the summer, freeing up more time to train for the Iditarod in the months leading up to the race. Many of his patients followed him over to his new practice, and it’s going well. “It’s a challenge,” he admits, “but at least it’s easier than the Iditarod.”
Maixner and his wife Margaret live in Big Lake, Alaska, with their two children. Their daughter Rosemary is two years old, and their son Vendelin was born this past June.
For more information about Maixner and his team, check out his website at madstorkkennel.com.