News from Nome: Alaska Native Wins Iditarod

John Baker of Kotzebue won the 39th running of the “Last Great Race on Earth”

2011 Iditarod victor John baker and Velvet, one of his lead dogs, being interview after he was the first into Nome, the beginning of the end of the 2011 race. Bob Hallinen photo.

Kotzebue musher and bush pilot John Baker, 48, reached Nome at 9:46 a.m. today, Alaska time, winning the 39th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in  a record-setting 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes and 39 seconds from Anchorage. In doing so, the Kotzbue musher and bush pilot became only the second after Martin Buser to break nine days in this grueling 1,040-mile competition and the first Alaska Native since Jerry Riley back in in 1976. 

An Inupiaq Eskimo, Baker is the fourth Native to win the Iditarod and the first since Jerry Riley in 1976. Three of the first four Iditarod winners were Natives — Emmitt Peters won in 1975 and Carl Huntington in 1974, but it’s been a long dry spell for descendants Alaska’s original inhabitants since then.

I was at the ceremonial start in Anchorage last week, and I sure would love to have been in Nome for Baker’s triumphant finish as his team powered him under the Burled Arch that spans Front Street in Nome. Baker bested a field that included the only five-time champion, Rick Swenson, as well as four-time winners Martin Buser and Lance Mackey.

See the finish by going to KTUU-TV’s live coverage at the finish in Nome.

“We’re just hoping and pulling for him. [It’s] great to have one of our own local people from the Norton Sound win…pretty exciting,”  Debbie Anungacuk of Golovin told a reporter. Bertha Koweluk, 43, an Alaska Native from Nome, who watched the finish with her 8-year-old daughter, was quoted as saying that Baker  “”represents a resilient people and it just shows we’re strong and we can overcome.”

While four-time winner Mackey, a cancer survivor, was inspirational for trimphing over his illness, much like another famous Lance (Armstrong),  Baker is inspiring because he overcame alcohol addiction, a particular tragedy in many remote Native communities. Anungacuk said that her people are often depicted as weak and crippled by addiction, and Baker’s win shows courage, resilience and strength. “We all need people to look up to, and this is a good guy to look up to,” she was quoted as saying.

When I watched the mushers and their teams line up at the celemonial  start, I mused that it was ironic how many competitors grew up “outside”, while only a handful were Natives. I later learned that the race started with 46 Alaska mushers, eight originally  from the Lower 48 and eight other countries (Canada, Scotland, Norway, New Zealand and Jamaica). Until the advent of snowmobiles (which Alaskans call snow machines), dogsleds were their means of winter transportation. How wonderful it must have been for Baker to hear the Native drums and the cheers on a cold and sunny morning in Nome, as he and 10 of the original 16 dogs he started with raced into town.

The Anchorage Daily News noted that Baker ” drove a team of dogs born and trained on the coast, their fur thicker and their durability unquestioned. Together, Baker and his dogs proved that the Iditarod does not belong to small, wiry mushers, who have collected the majority of recent victories. Baker weighs in at 220 pounds — that’s two DeeDee Jonrowes and about one-and-a-half Lance Mackeys.”

Baker’s victory is a good thing for the Natives of the North Slope, though there will be no champagne celebration.