KOTZEBUE - If things had gone the way John Baker planned, he wouldn't be lining up his dog team at the start of this year's Iditarod.
Rather, the musher would be relaxing. Maybe spending more time at his camp near Kotzebue. Baker doesn't remember the exact plans made, but his wife, Iva, summed them up: Instead of competing in the Anchorage-to-Nome race, the Bakers would be acting like a normal family.
A normal family is not one fathered by a 38-year-old Inupiaq musher who sets a goal of winning the Iditarod in five years, when the heartiest of athletes have raced the distance for years and never won. Normal, everyday families aren't mothered by a woman who sets aside her pageant-queen days of beauty and dons a snowmobile suit to feed hungry dogs at night.
Baker has proven himself to be more than an up-and-coming musher with unpredictable finishes. He ended his first race in 22nd place, earned 11th the next year and finally made it to the top 10 in the 1998 and 1999 races. It wasn't too much of a stretch to think he could whittle down his time and claim the top prize.
But dog problems in the 2000 race left him 21 positions behind the one he wanted. After the race, Baker sat down with his wife and son.
"What do you think," he asked them. "Is this my last Iditarod?"
That's when Alex, his 13-year-old son, reminded his father they had not yet won.
"He wants us to win before we hang up the harnesses," Iva said.
After a series of family meetings, the Bakers decided to postpone personal time for training time. Winning the Iditarod is not just Baker's dream. It's the dream of his wife; his son; his sister Marcy; his mother; the restaurant owner down the street who has a poster of Baker hanging above the counter; and Beverly Turley, principal of Kotzebue Middle/High School, who has two of the posters.
It seems everyone in Kotzebue has a stake in Baker's races. The town of 3,000 looks forward to his motivational speeches at local schools, which he tries to visit every year, telling kids that goals of all kinds are within reach if they're willing to put in the effort.
The Baker family celebrates everyone's accomplishments, not just John's. Iva, for instance, is a former Miss Arctic Circle and has written several stories that were chosen for a book that will be published soon. Alex is an honor-roll student and reading award winner.
"I wanted to show younger people from our areas that no matter what kind of a dream you have, if you're willing to go after it, you can succeed," Baker said.
Approaching his sixth Iditarod, the musher is using his knack for pulling people together.
Sister Marcy Fairbanks remembers when their father died and Baker, still a child, helped take charge. The same leadership plays out when Baker prepares for the Iditarod. When it's dark and cold, maybe 30 below zero, Baker will have his family gathered outside, cutting up dog meat for him. And everyone will stay because Baker's out there, too, laughing and keeping everyone in a good mood, Fairbanks said.
"He was always kind of pushing us," Fairbanks said. "And he's still that way."
So when Baker talks about quitting, that means everybody has to quit with him. The Bakers aren't ready to do that. On March 3, John will be there at the ceremonial starting line in Anchorage representing the whole lot.
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