On the trail, musher John Baker is known as a man of few words.
But on Wednesday, a day after he broke Iditarod records by finishing with a time of eight days, 19 hours and 46 minutes, he sat down with reporters to talk over a Styrofoam cup of coffee in Nome.
He spoke about being a role model for Native mushers, his lead dogs and why he isn’t sure he’ll be coming back to run the Iditarod again next year.
Bad Training, Great Race
Baker's training runs in the last season were frequently thwarted by weather, and he said he more than once set out on a three- or five-hour jaunt that ended 14 or 22 hours later.
"Every training run I went on seemed to fall apart," the Kotzebue musher said.
So setting a new trail record wasn't exactly a sure thing as he began the race, he said.
He dislikes the stretch of trail between Anchorage and Nikolai: too many trees, too tight and too many other dog teams to tangle with.
"I am just not very good at it," he said.
But his dogs were consistent, and unfazed by warm trail conditions. And with no medical problems to deal with –a swollen foot was as bad as it got for Baker’s team – the team was positioned to hit their record-setting pace.
"I had to make (the dogs) feel good about themselves and feel better and better and build on their confidence," he said.
He says he thinks his dogs are successful in part because he breeds out problems and has developed a team that's able to thrive in almost any condition. Still, even leaders – like the blue-eyed Velvet and Snickers – sometimes pout.
"I know dogs aren't supposed to have feelings, but if I hurt their feelings they pout about it for days even," he said. "That Velvet, she's older and she'll be goofin' around for days until she's back to where she's like alright, we'll do it your way."
At Home in Kotzebue
Though he says he knew breaking the record was possible while he was out on the trail, the win is still a shock.
"I've wanted to accomplish this for so long," he says. "It hasn't really sunk in yet."
Back at home he's looking forward to watching the NBA finals on TV, snowmachining into the mountains and running his younger dogs.
He's not sure that he'll run the Iditarod next year, he says.
"I always said, once I won I wouldn't do this again but I like this life," he said. "What else would I want to do, I don't know. I like being out in the country, involved with the dogs."
That includes spending time with his family, including the mother of his children Iva, and children Alex and Tahayla, who is not sure if she wants to mush or not. (He thinks she should become a doctor.) His sister prepared all the food for his "trail drop" packages: sausage, breakfast wraps, French toast, waffles. And his mother and other family members made him Eskimo salad – a mix of dried fish and dried meat with seal oil and greens – and pickled muktuk that sustained him between checkpoints.
Now that he's an Iditarod champion – the first Inupiaq Eskimo and the first Alaska Native to hold the title since the 1970s – he knows his words will carry a different weight in his home region of the Northwest Arctic.
His victory in a sport invented by indigenous people of the Arctic has been celebrated from Alaska to Greenland.
"It should give us more confidence that we’re capable of anything," he said. "We can do everything with pride and dignity."
Baker, who has long spoken to schoolchildren in the Northwest Arctic about chasing goals and perseverance, now has a happy ending to his own 16-year quest to win the Iditarod, an accomplishment that he hopes will instill confidence in his people and his region.
"The Iditarod has given me that voice," Baker said. "I have to be respectful with it."
After questions were over KOTZ Radio 89.9 reporter Susan Bushnell put Baker on the microphone to address a live audience of listeners from the Kotzebue area.
"I can’t wait to see you guys," he said. "I'll be home on Monday."