By Michelle Theriault Boots
1:02 PM AKDT, March 15, 2011
It ended just the way he had imagined.
During his long mushing career, John Baker nurtured a quiet wish: if he ever ended up winning the Iditarod, he wanted to finish surrounded by the beat of Inupiaq drums.
Just after a sunny dawn in Nome on Tuesday, Baker did just that – riding into town with a team of 10 dogs surrounded by cheering fans and the thunderous drumming.
“That was a dream I had, if I ran I wanted it to end like that,” he told an audience in Nome on Tuesday, just after he was named the champion of the 39th Iditarod.
The Kotzebue musher won the 39th Iditarod, shattering Martin Buser’s 2002 record by reaching Nome in 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes and 39 seconds.
After receiving his check and posing for photos with his lead dogs Velvet and Snickers, sleepy and clad in rose neck garlands, he told crowds that he was ready to relax and enjoy some of the very simple pleasures of off-trail living.
“I really just enjoy a good bowl of soup,” he said.
Even as his lead strengthened, he didn’t start thinking of himself as a champion until the very finish, he said.
“I didn’t allow myself to think like that.”
For him, the race really started in Nikolai, after the technical portions of the trail open up. His dog team, mostly Kotzebue-bred veterans mixed with a few younger dogs, held steady as others were plagued by sickness and other problems.
“It was a steady, strong team,” he said.
Sheldon Katchatag of Unalakleet was one of those drummers, and he said he swelled with pride to see a fellow Inupiaq and Alaska Native win the Iditarod.
Katchatag wore his mother’s polar bear mukluks, and a parka with a wolf ruff to welcome Baker in, beating on a drum that he later asked Baker to sign.
“We wanted to customarily, traditionally welcome him,” Katchatag said. “That’s what he wanted and he got it.”
The musher’s brother Andy Baker, clad in a “Team Baker” parka, said that his big brother John was destined for this kind of success.
“John worked so hard,” Baker said. “It really shows the pride, being from a small place – you can do it. You can do things.”
Baker’s 9-year-old daughter Tahayla grinned as people took iPhone photos of her and her Iditarod champion dad.
How did it feel to be the daughter of an Iditarod champion?
“Awesome,” she said. “Me and my mom have been waiting for this moment.”
Baker’s wife Iva said the win was a long time coming. Baker’s win took years of support and sacrifice from his family, especially his children, she said. It made her look back on the first time he decided to run the Iditarod, 16 years ago.
“All the years we waited,” she said. “It’s so good to see it actually happen, unfold before your eyes.”
His persistence would be a lesson, she said.
“It speaks volumes especially to Native people – when you have a good dream, you can accomplish it. It just takes a little time – in this case, 16 years.”
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