Last year, Inupiat John Baker's lead dog, Velvet, won the Iditarod's coveted Golden Harness Award.

Can Inupiat Champ John Baker Repeat on the Iditarod Trail?

Richard Walker
3/3/12

As the 40th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race nears, it’s not easy being John Baker. But there’s nothing quite like being him either. In the days leading up to the Last Great Race on Earth, Baker has had the attention and distraction of being the event’s defending champion.

He won the hearts of Native Alaska in the 2011 Iditarod when he shattered the race record by three hours and became the first Inupiat champion in the event’s history, and the first Alaska Native to win the race since Athabaskan Jerry Riley in 1976. (Among the foods Baker took with him for nourishment was Eskimo salad, which consists of raw chopped veggies and muktuk.)

Baker’s time of 8 days 18 hours 46 minutes was three hours faster than Martin Buser’s 1982 race. In addition, the other mushers voted Baker’s two lead dogs, Snickers and Velvet, the winners of the Iditarod’s coveted Golden Harness Award.

“It’s always hard to return to the race as a champion because you’re distracted by obligations of being a champion,” Iditarod Insider Analyst Bruce Lee said in an interview on the official race website, Iditarod.com. “Everyone wants to see him repeat … (But) it’s not always the same condition, you’re not always going against the same players."

Indeed. When Baker and his dog team line up for the ceremonial start in Anchorage March 3 at 10 a.m., he will face a field of 15 rookies and 50 veterans, among them Jr. Iditarod champ Rohn Buser, who beat Baker by 30 minutes in the Kusko 300 Sled Dog Race in January. There will be five former champs in the lineup, including five-time winner Rick Swenson, four-time winner Lance Mackey, and Buser’s dad, 2002 champ Martin Buser.

John Baker, Inupiat, the 2011 Iditarod champion hopes to repeat

Baker is looking to retain his title at least and, at the most, set a new record, but this year’s race could be tougher than 2011’s.

“A lot of snow this year,” Lee said on Iditarod.com. “The coastlines got over 600 inches. Of course, you don’t have that the whole way. But (the) trail report from the race marshal and the trail breakers is that (on) a majority of the trail, (there’s) a lot of snow this year.”

Lee said that could mean a slower race. “If that trail gets punched out or if the wind comes up, it wouldn’t matter if you sent out a dozen trail breakers in front of ’em, there’s enough snow that if it starts moving, the trail is going to blow in.”

Advantage to Baker: He, as well as the other teams, “have been training in this type of condition all year, so the dogs are kind of used to it,” Lee said.

And the course is shorter at 975 miles. Jillian MacMath of AccuWeather.com writes that the course is under 1,000 miles for the first time ever, “an adjustment that reflects a new ceremonial start, a change in the restart location and the actual year-to-year trail conditions.”

This year, mushers can anticipate 30-degree temperatures at the starting line in Anchorage with a chance for snow or flurries. Nighttime lows are expected to hit 14 degrees F, according to AccuWeather.com. On March 4, at the official restart in Willow, mushers will see partly cloudy skies with a high of 26 degrees F and a low of 6 degrees. Toward the end of the week, as racers rush toward Nikolai, temperatures will be in the low single-digits, with chances of snow and ice mixed with rain.

The 2012 Iditarod trail

"This should be a good trail year,” Iditarod Communications Director Erin McLarnon told AccuWeather.com. “Of course, we can encounter unpredictable storms during the race that can affect mushers, depending where they are along the trail."

Baker and his dogs seemed confident in the days leading up to the race.

On Feb. 29, at a kennel in the Mat-Su Valley, Team Baker checked out a trail for a quick run. “Leaving the dog yard, the dogs seem unruffled by other excited dogs,” Baker’s team wrote on his blog. “Amidst the barking dogs around them, Velvet and Snickers gently stretch out the line, ears perked up as they listen for the quiet kissing sound from John’s lips indicating it’s time to go. In one subtle motion the team moves together with agility and a very smooth gait. Loose and limber, each dog runs effortlessly and calmly away from the noise and excitement.”

Earlier, the team wrote, “For the past few months, the race training and preparation has been intense. Now, the training is over and the team must put what they have been preparing for into action. Accordingly, the preparation for all that is needed to be race ready is done. Anticipation and excitement for the race start is what we sense from musher and dogs.”

According to his biography, Baker, 49, was born and raised in Kotzebue, Alaska. He began mushing in 1995 ran his first Iditarod in 1996. He has 12 Top 10 Iditarod finishes. He is a self-employed commercial pilot. He has a son, Alex, 23, a veteran of the Jr. Iditarod; and a daughter, Tahayla, 9.

Endurance and strategy

The Iditarod was started in 1973 and includes part of the 1925 route traveled by famed Norwegian-American sled dog racer Leonhard Seppala in the 674-mile diphtheria serum run from Nenana to Nome, which saved hundreds of lives. (Another annual sled dog race, the Serum Run, more accurately follows the route of the famous 1925 relay.)

The Iditarod is a lot of endurance and a lot of strategy. Over the course of the race, musher and team travel through major climatic zones with varied weather conditions and varied terrain. Potential hazards range from heavy snowfall to moose; startling a moose on the trail can be dangerous. The musher must stay alert, hydrated and nourished.

The musher must protect his or her dogs from fatigue, injury and stress. During layovers, mushers tend to their dogs, feeding them, massaging and stretching their muscles, and inspecting feet for injuries. Rest and nutrition are key: Dick Wilmarth, who won the inaugural Iditarod, fed his dogs a high-fat, high-protein diet of beaver, caribou and whitefish, according to a story in the Anchorage Daily News.

Since 1984, all dogs are examined by a veterinarian before the race start, and each musher keeps a veterinary diary on the trail.

“In the event a dog is injured or fatigued, our rules require, and basic dog care deems, that we give the dog a ride or we stop,” three-time Iditarod champion Jeff King told Scholastic. “The rules require that the sleds we use are capable of carrying a dog that is fatigued. We are all well-trained in dog first-aid. We carry a first-aid handbook, and we are members of organizations that make sure that we know what we are doing.” (Four-time champ Buser won the Iditarod’s Leonhard Seppala Award in 1988, 1993, 1995 and 1997 for the most humanitarian care of his dogs.)

Still, according to the Humane Society of the United States, an estimated 120 dogs have died in the Iditarod since 1973.

Mushers are not immune to being hurt. A musher can be injured by a toppled sled, and he or she must protect against exposure. Mitch Seavey, the 2004 champ, pulled out of last year’s race midway after he cut his fingers. Martin Buser sliced his hand prior to the 2005 race.

Native pride

The Iditarod has ties to Alaska Native culture. Portions of the Iditarod Trail were used by Athabaskan and Inupiaq peoples centuries before the arrival of Russian fur traders in the 1800s.

The earliest sled dogs were Inuit sled dogs bred by the Mahlemuit people of Northwest Alaska; we know the descendants of those dogs as Malamutes.

Iditarod legends include Herbie Nayokpuk (1929-2006), the Shishmaref Cannonball, who finished in the top 10 in eight of 11 races; he finished second in 1980. Northern Air Cargo sponsors the Herbie Nayokpuk Award, presented to the Iditarod musher who best exemplifies the sportsmanship and love of dogs that Nayokpuk demonstrated in his life.

Other Native mushers are infusing their cultures into the Iditarod tradition.

Josh Cadzow, 23, Gwich’in, said he entered the Iditarod “to race my team to Nome, to finish and have healthy dogs, and also to support my Native background for mushing.”

Ryan Redington, 27, Inupiat, is continuing a mushing heritage that dates back to his great-grandfather, Frank Ryan, who delivered U.S. mail from Unalakleet to other villages by dog team. (Redington’s non-Native paternal grandfather, Joe Redington Sr., started the Iditarod in 1973.)

Mike Williams Jr., 26, Yupik, is racing in his third Iditarod and, like his famous father, races to call attention to sobriety and healthy living. He works with the state Department of Behavioral Health to help prevent teenage suicides, and he and other community members participate in field trips with students.

And, of course, there’s John Baker, the first Inupiat to win the Iditarod, eyeing a repeat of 2011.

For an incredible photo gallery of past Iditarods, click here.

Here's the official 2012 Iditarod site.

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