Iditarod Champ Couldn't Quit on Native people

By: Associated Press Email
By: Associated Press Email

It took John Baker 16 tries to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He had to think long and hard about coming back to defend his title.

The 49-year-old Inupiat musher from northwest Alaska has become
an icon of sorts for Alaska Native youth, and he said he couldn't
retire because so many people are counting on him.

"Seems to be a lot of excitement around the state from the win
we had last time," the soft-spoken Kotzebue musher said prior to
the race.

The 40th running of the Iditarod started Sunday for 66 mushers
and their dog teams. The goal is to be the first to reach the old
gold rush town of Nome, with the winner expected sometime early
next week.

A grandson of race co-founder Joe Redington, Ray Redington Jr.,
was among the leaders Monday night. He and Hugh Neff, who won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race last month, were among the first mushers into the Rohn checkpoint, about 263 miles into the race. Bunched with them was four-time champion Lance Mackey. Ally Zirkle was the first musher out of Rohn after a stop
of just nine minutes.

Baker, who has 12 top 10 Iditarod finishes, had also reached
Rohn by Monday night, according to GPS tracking on the Iditarod
website.

After Baker spent time in the winner's circle last year with his
lead dogs, Snickers and Velvet, he went to the Nome convention
center to speak with fans.

After spending more than eight days on the trail, he was tired,
bleary eyed and barely able to stay awake.

He said at the time he's more affected than others by sleep
deprivation on the trail, and couldn't commit to running another
Iditarod.

But once he caught up on sleep, he said he looked around and saw
all the people counting on him to run again, from family to friends
to the extended Alaska Native community.

"It would kind of be quitting people" if he didn't race, he
said.

"Throughout the years, from the first time John Baker entered
the Iditarod race, our entire region was there to support him, pray
for him, encourage him, and then of course, for the 2011
championship, we were just doubly overjoyed; very emotional victory
for so many of us," said Marie N. Greene, president and CEO of
NANA Region Corp., a regional Alaska Native corporation.

When he isn't training for the race, Baker spends his time
traveling to Alaska villages and giving Native children a message:
Work hard, follow your dreams, and you can do it.

He was the keynote speaker last fall at the Alaska Federation of
Natives, the state's largest gathering of Native people. He
espoused those themes to a standing-room only crowd, and then was
besieged for autographs following the address.

"He has really given our students, our young people the
encouragement needed," Greene said. "No matter what our dreams
are, we can keep on trying and one day we'll accomplish those
goals, just like he did."

She called him a good ambassador for the state and all Alaska
Native people.

Baker has seen one change since he's become an Iditarod
champion. Children treat him a little bit differently.

"They were quiet and listening for once," he said.

Musher Josh Cadzow, who grew up watching the Iditarod, said
"Baker was always the musher to pull for when I was a kid."

The 23-year-old Athabascan from Fort Yukon is a rookie in this
year's Iditarod and a three-time veteran and the 2010 Rookie of the
Year in the Yukon Quest.

"Hopefully I'm the musher to pull for since he won already. He
did his goal. Now it's my goal," Cadzow said.

Mushing isn't a sport in which people get rich. The total purse
is $550,000 for the first 30 finishers, with the winner receiving
$50,400 and a new truck.

Baker estimated it takes a minimum of $75,000 to train for this
year's race.


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