ANCHORAGE — After 16 years of losses, John Baker was solely focused on winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race.
When he did that last year in record time — and became the first Alaska Native musher to win in 35 years — he hadn’t considered what would come next.
“I hadn’t thought past what happens once I crossed the finish line,” he said Wednesday in his keynote address at the First Alaskans Institute Youth and Elders Conference in Anchorage.
But once he did start thinking about the next step, he knew he couldn’t make the decision alone.
“There’s other people involved, other people who worked just as hard for me to win this race, so I needed to get together with my family, friends and sponsors that make up Team Baker and ask them what they think we should do,” he said.
“And they didn’t hesitate. They said, ‘You’re going to race,’” Baker said in announcing plans to defend his Iditarod title next March.
Baker, a soft-spoken Inupiat Eskimo, received several standing ovations from the audience packed into a ballroom at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in downtown Anchorage. He later signed autographs.
The Kotzebue musher was the first Alaska Native musher to win the Iditarod since Jerry Riley won in 1976, and he was the first Eskimo to win since the 1,150-mile Anchorage to Nome race began in 1973.
Baker last year shattered the race record, coming in three hours earlier than four-time champion Martin Buser did when he set the previous record in 2002. Baker completed this year’s race in eight days, 18 hours and 46 minutes.
During the address, he stressed the need to have dreams and having a process to achieve them. He pointed to 16 failed attempts to win the Iditarod before last year’s win.
“It’s about the importance of having dreams, setting goals to pursue the dream and taking actions to make the dream a reality,” he said.
Baker said he’s learned from his mistakes and moved on. He also won’t let anyone else define him by those mistakes.
The issues of drugs and alcohol, abuse and suicide in rural Alaska need to be addressed, but he said that’s not the only thing people should be talking about.
“My belief is if we focus only on the negatives, we’ll never be strong,” he said when encouraging the largely teen audience to work together and support each other.
In lighter moments during a question-and-answer session, Baker was asked which of his 70 or so dogs is his favorite.
Sometimes it’s difficult to pick just one, but one of his lead dogs, Velvet, stands out. Velvet and Baker’s other lead dog, Snickers, shared the Golden Harness award for last year’s Iditarod, as voted on by other mushers.
“She’s a dog that nobody else had any success in hooking her up and running. She just doesn’t want to do it,” he said. “But she does it for me.”
He also was asked how a proposed road to Nome might change the sled dog race.
Baker says the proposed road wouldn’t go along the trail that much, and he’s been told that where the two intersect, the mushers will be allowed to use the road. For him, that’s good news.
“I sure could use a few less bumps in the future,” he said. “I hope it’s paved.”