Alaska native first to win Iditarod since 1976
John Baker shattered the course record by three hours, finishing the 1,100-mile race in eight days, 19 hours and 46 minutes.
Tue, Mar 15, 2011 at 07:42 PM
WINNER: Kotzebue resident John Baker sits with his lead dogs Velvet and Snickers after he arrives in Nome to win his first Iditarod race. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - John Baker won the storied Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in record time on Tuesday while becoming the first Alaska Native champion since 1976.
He shattered the course record by three hours, finishing the 1,100-mile race in eight days, 19 hours and 46 minutes. The previous record had been set in 2002 by four-time champion Martin Buser.
Driving a team of 10 trotting dogs, Baker sledded along snow-covered Front Street in Nome, Alaska, as he approached the finish line marked by a polished, knotted wood arch.
He was greeted by drummers and dancers from his Inupiat tribe, and a large crowd of relatives and supporters from his home town of Kotzebue, located about 180 miles north of Nome.
"Running a team like this, there's nothing better," Baker, 48, said at the finish line. "This is the way life is supposed to be."
The Iditarod commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that sent diphtheria serum to Nome by sled-dog relay.
Aside from being the first Alaska Native to win the race since 1976, Baker is the event's first Inupiat victor.
The Inupiat are the Eskimo people of Alaska's northern and northwestern coast. Their language is distinct from that of the Yupik people, who are from the more southern parts of western Alaska, and they have common traditions based on whaling and other subsistence food-gathering traditions.
Among those celebrating Baker's win was Denise Michels, the first Inupiat to be elected mayor of Nome.
"I've waited eight years to tell you this," she said, after hugging Baker. "On behalf of the city of Nome, congratulations on coming to the burled arch first."
At the finish line, where Baker received an oversized check for $50,400, keys to a new truck and flower wreaths for his lead dogs, the new champion said he did not realize he was on a record pace until the final hours of the race.
"I didn't have any thoughts about breaking the record. That dawned on me last night or early this morning," he said. "Breaking the record was certainly the icing on the cake."
Baker is a commercial pilot who flies small planes between rural villages in northwestern Alaska, an area that lacks road links. His home of Kotzebue, a mostly Inupiat town of about 3,200, lies above the Arctic Circle.
Baker is one of the few Iditarod champions who lives in a truly rural part of the state. Most top mushers reside along the road system north of Anchorage or in the Fairbanks area, with easy access to supplies, business partners and corporate sponsors.
He has been a consistent top-10 finisher over the past several years and placed as high as third in previous races.
Past Native Iditarod champions have been Athabascan Indians from interior Alaska.
The latest Iditarod competition began on March 5 with a ceremonial run in Anchorage. Sixty-two mushers and their dog teams began the race. As of early Tuesday, 11 had dropped out.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Greg McCune)
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