NOME, Alaska — John Baker crossed the finish line first Tuesday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to reclaim the title of Iditarod champion for an Alaska Native musher.
Baker, 48, of Kotzebue steered his dog team down the main drag in this gold rush town on Alaska’s western coast to win the 1,150-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, and get his name in the record books.
He is the first Alaska Native musher to win the world’s longest sled dog race since Jerry Riley did it in 1976.
Baker also shattered exactly by three hours the race record held by four-time champion Martin Buser, who completed the 2002 race in 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes. Baker completed the race in 8 days, 19 hours, 46 minutes.
“Running a team like this, there is nothing better,” Baker said. “I am really proud of this.”
He said this year’s running was an “incredible race for me.”
The soft-spoken Baker then began shaking hands with some of the hundreds of people who lined up to watch the finish shortly after sunrise on a crisp (2 degrees) but clear morning.
He was greeted by a group of musicians playing Eskimo drums. Many in the crowd wore traditional Eskimo parkas.
Baker said he gets strength from Eskimo dancing and drumming and was pleased to see the Eskimo drummers greet him at the race’s end. He said that is how he had imagined it would be if he ever won the Iditarod.
“That was a dream that I had and I must have mentioned it to someone.”
Sheldon Katchatag was one of the Eskimo drummers who helped give Baker a traditional welcome.
“We have to properly drum him in,” he said. “My spirit is moved to do it. I want him to enjoy the glory of his moment.”
Having just come of the trail, Baker appeared happy but exhausted, and uncertain about whether he would race in the Iditarod again.
“All along I’ve said if I won this race one time I would question whether I would do this again,” Baker said. However, he quickly followed that up with his hope to work with a young group of dogs that he has waiting for him in Kotzebue.
Bertha Koweluk, 43, an Alaska Native from Nome, watched the finish with her 8-year-old daughter, and said that Baker’s win will inspire Native people across the state.
“He represents a resilient people and it just shows we’re strong and we can overcome,” she said.
She said that so many times Alaska Natives are depicted as weak and crippled by addiction. But Baker’s win, she said, illustrates an untold story of her people.
“We all need people to look up to, and this is a good guy to look up to,” she said.
While Baker is the first Alaska Native to win the race in many years, he is the first Eskimo to ever do it.
Elnora Wands, 75, from Denver, Colo., is a retired school teacher who spent a decade in the western Alaska town of Point Hope, where some of Baker’s relatives live. She said when she was a teacher there Baker came to the school to give the children an inspirational talk about how he conquered his problem with alcohol addiction and now is an Iditarod musher.
“To have someone who is Native be able to overcome, to succeed and triumph, will be an affirming experience for all of them,” she said.
The race’s top 30 finishers will share in a $528,000 purse. Baker received $50,400 and a new truck for winning. Baker, who had 11 top-10 finishes in 15 years of Iditarod racing, had not finished in the top spot before.
In 2010, he was one of the front-runners when confusion and fatigue may have cost him an Iditarod championship. He lost five hours about halfway into the race because he became convinced that he had lost the trail, when actually he was still on it.
By the time Baker figured out his mistake the leaders were well ahead and his job then was to try to salvage what he could of the race. Baker finished fifth.
He took the lead in this year’s race on Saturday as he approached the western coast of Alaska and training terrain familiar to him and his dogs. Ramey Smyth challenged Baker toward the end of the race. The 35-year-old musher from Willow — who finished sixth last year, just one spot behind Baker — closed the gap to less than one hour but couldn’t catch him down the stretch.
Smyth arrived a little more than an hour after Baker to finish in second place. He said he gave the race everything he could, but couldn’t close the gap. Baker actually increased his lead over Smyth on the final sprint to Nome.
Baker began mushing in 1995 and ran his first Iditarod in 1996. His best finish before this year was placing third in 2002 and 2009.
Sixty-two teams began the Iditarod on March 6. As of Tuesday morning, 51 teams remained in the race, with the others either scratching or being withdrawn.
This year’s field consisted of 46 Alaska mushers, eight from the Lower 48 and eight from outside the U.S., including Canada, Scotland, Norway, New Zealand and Jamaica.
Lance Mackey, who had won the race four consecutive times, was stuck well back in the pack. Several of his dogs that had brought him first to Nome before did not perform well early on in the race and were dropped from his team. That left Mackey with a small team relatively early in the race.
Mackey rallied and moved to within striking distance of the leader, but faded toward the end. He was in 17th place when Baker crossed the finish line.