From Kyle Hopkins at the Dena'ina Center --
Iditarod champion John Baker told the story of his historic win to hundreds of young people from villages around the state earlier today at the First Alaskans Elders and Youth Conference.
Baker, who is part Inupiaq and lives and trains in Kotzebue, this year shattered the Iditarod speed record by three hours. It was the 48-year-old Baker's 16th try at the race and his first victory.
He will deliver the keynote speech at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention beginning Thursday.
“I won’t pretend that living in rural Alaska isn’t difficult at times. It just means that we have to work a lot harder,” Baker told the youth delegates, who gave the musher a pair of standing ovations.
Afterward, the audience peppered Baker with questions about his dogs, his future in the sport and even how a proposed road to Nome might change the race. Here’s a sampling of the musher’s responses, edited for length and clarity:
Q. Now that you’ve won the Iditarod, do you have another dream?
A: This year I hadn’t thought past winning. I hadn’t thought past what happens once I crossed the finish line. Well, I realized, it wasn’t all about me. This life wasn’t all about me, me, me. There was other people involved. Other people had 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. They didn’t hesitate. They said, ‘You are going to race.’
… My part in team Baker is running the dogs. So I’m going to race again and my dream is to win the Iditarod and break a new record this year.
Q. What was your favorite dog?
A. When you have 70 dogs, it’s sometimes hard to pick one. But, a lot of people talk about these dogs like they’re their children and I would hate to be picking favorite children.
There is a special dog. She’s on the cover of this (First Alaskans) magazine that we have here. And she was voted by the other mushers in this year’s Iditarod as the Golden Harness award winner. Her name is Velvet. And she’s a dog that nobody else has any success in hooking her up and running her. She just doesn’t want to do it. But she does it for me. And she does it faster than any dog has ever done it...
The command that I use for my dog team to get up and get ready goes something like this. (Makes a scratchy whisper over the microphone.)
That’s all that I do, whether I’m in Anchorage or in Unalakleet. And the reason I use a small command like that, and a quiet command, is that I want the dogs listening to me … I don’t want them listening to anybody else. I want them always looking to me, listening to me, so I speak quietly.
What do I expect the dogs to do when they’re given that command and they’re completely drained and tired? I don’t expect miracles. I don’t expect this team to jump up and start running down the trail. What I expect is just one dog, and I suppose it’s probably Velvet, to stand up. Because she’s the greatest leader this race has ever seen. All she has to do is stand up. And then think about what happens after that. The dog besides her stands up. … Pretty quick, the whole team is standing and all I have to do is pull the hook and off we go.
On role models:
A. The role model that I have carried forward over the years, is a special person actually. I wasn’t going to talk about it today, but I guess it’s key that I do. When I finished the Iditarod this year, I was the toughest S.O.B. in Alaska. They were making me out to be something I wasn’t. The newspapers, you know how they are, and TV… "This guy broke the record, and he did this."
Well, after the Iditarod I came to Anchorage six days later. I was a little baby crying at the foot of my mother’s bed because she was sick. And at the time, we thought terminally sick, with cancer. And so I realized watching her and the courage that she was showing and her ability to fight through pain, that this was the role model that not only I, but everybody around her had become better people for being around her.
I also realized that if anybody was ever to race beside me or with me, against me, ever again, they would be racing a different person. Because for the first time in my life, I was feeling pain.
There’s nothing worse than sitting and watching your mother suffer, and there’s nothing you can do about it. … My role model would definitely be defined as my mother.
On his legacy:
A. As far as my children… if they would like to continue to run the dogs I would be happy to support them. I wouldn’t wish that upon too many people. It’s a lot of work.
… I wanted to leave something special. I wanted to leave something with people, young and old. That I too felt so small one day walking down the streets of Kotzebue. I felt like I w asn’t anything special. I felt that I was just a speck of nothing on this Earth, actually. l wondered how I would ever be able to accomplish anything. Whether it was finishing high school or flying airplanes or anything. … Any dream that I wanted to do, I wondered ‘How in the world am I ever going to do that?’
Especially competing against the very best in the world, actually wanting to be the best in the world.
How could somebody from Kotzebue have that kind of dreams? Well, I’ve proven to myself that we can. We can do anything that we want. So that’s the legacy I want to leave.
Q. Will the proposed road to Nome have a big impact on the Iditarod trail?
A. The route that they’re talking about traveling wouldn’t go along the Iditarod trail that much, and where it did go along the trail, I would hope that they would let us use it. Because I could sure use a few less bumps in the future. I hope it’s paved.