NOME — John Baker’s win in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was more than just one man finally achieving his lifelong dream. It was also a victory for Alaska Natives.
Hundreds of fans and traditional Eskimo drummers greeted the 48-year-old Eskimo musher as he crossed the finish line Tuesday morning in the world’s longest sled dog race.
“We are lucky when we are able to do something good and share it with other people,” said Baker — a soft-spoken Inupiat Eskimo who already had celebrity status in western Alaska before winning the Iditarod on his 16th try.
The Kotzebue musher is the first Alaska Native musher to win the Iditarod since Jerry Riley did it in 1976, and he is the first Eskimo to win since the 1,150-mile Anchorage to Nome race began in 1973.
Baker 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, 19 hours and 46 minutes.
“Running a team like this, there is nothing better,” Baker said. “I am really proud of this.”
Baker then began shaking hands with some of the people who lined up to watch the finish shortly after sunrise on a crisp and clear day in this old Gold Rush town.
Bertha Koweluk, 43, who watched the finish with her 8-year-old daughter, said she knows Baker’s win will help re-instill pride in Alaska Natives across the state. She said so many times Alaska Natives are depicted as weak and crippled by addiction. But Baker’s win, she said, illustrates an untold story of her people.
“He represents a resilient people and it just shows we’re strong and we can overcome,” she said.
In a show of Native pride, many in the crowd wore traditional Eskimo parkas, including 46-year-old Angela Buffas, whose crimson parka adorned with gold ribbon was made by her grandmother. Buffas is a skin-sewer and attached the wolf, beaver and wolverine trim.
“It just feels good that an Alaska Native, locally from around here, is finally the winner,” she said.
Buffas said it’s been a long time since Native people relied on sled dogs for hunting and gathering subsistence foods, but her grandmother and her grandmother’s sisters and brothers did. Each family had its own team of dogs to take on hunts for moose, caribou, beaver and seals and to gather food from the land, she said.
That way of life is mostly gone from rural Alaska, and was one of the reasons why Joe Redington, considered the father of the Iditarod, began the race in 1973.
“It is now proven that the Eskimo culture of dog mushing has finally moved up to the top of the Iditarod, and it is a good feeling,” said Wayne Walluk, an Eskimo and retired sprint musher.
He said people in Kotzebue still have dog teams and hold races, but it has disappeared from many villages and with it an important piece of Native culture.
Having just come off the trail, Baker appeared happy but exhausted, and uncertain about whether he would race in the Iditarod again.
“All along I’ve said if I won this race one time I would question whether I would do this again,” Baker said. However, he quickly followed that up by saying he hoped to work with a young group of dogs that he has waiting for him in Kotzebue.
Defending champion Lance Mackey was trying for his fifth consecutive win but was in 16th place Tuesday. Several of his veteran Iditarod dogs did not perform well early on in the race and were dropped from his team. That left Mackey with a small team relatively early in the race — a deficit that he could not overcome.
The race’s top 30 finishers will share in a $528,000 purse. Baker received $50,400 and a new truck for winning.
Baker took the lead in this year’s race on Saturday as he approached the western coast of Alaska and training terrain familiar to him and his dogs. Ramey Smyth challenged Baker toward the end of the race, but the 35-year-old musher from Willow came in a little over an hour after the leader.
Hans Gatt, who finished second in 2010, was third this year. He said this would be his last Iditarod.
“We really were in to win it this year, but that didn’t happen,” Gatt said.
Sixty-two teams began the Iditarod on March 6.