Musher John Baker to give the Iditarod another try

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2001

KOTZEBUE (AP) -- 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 everybody knows the heartiest of athletes have raced the distance for years and never finished with a gold medal. 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 Baker knew before the 2000 race began that it would be tainted. He sensed something was wrong with the way his dogs were behaving.

''On the trail, it was obvious that they just didn't feel good at all,'' he said.

Nonetheless, Baker raced. He feared at one point that he wouldn't finish, but he continued on the course only to reach the finish line 21 positions behind the one he really 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 that 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.

''We were talking just the other day about how he hasn't been here this year,'' Turley said.

Baker tries to visit the schools 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.

Her husband's accomplishments are displayed on a wall of their home: his Iditarod bibs, commemorative champagne bottles, a belt buckle from the Kuskokwim 300, a race in which he took fourth place this year. Baker's awards go back to the gold medals he won for the one- and two-foot high kicks in the Eskimo/ Indian Olympics.

On the opposite wall is a shrine to Alex. Tacked there is an honor roll certificate for his 4.0 grade average, report cards and awards for reading. Role models, John Baker said, can be as young as his 13-year-old.

''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.

Kids collect trading cards with Baker's picture on them. They point him out when he's sitting in the stands of local basketball games. They write to him. Iva often writes back, sending an old dog bootie if she's got one to spare.

Baker, Iva said, is the Michael Jordan of Kotzebue.

Iva didn't know she was marrying a small-town celebrity. When she met John almost six years ago, she didn't even know he had dogs.

''I did not know what I was getting into,'' Iva said. ''I sure had to learn quick.''

The Iditarod was also a new challenge for members of the extended Baker family, who are almost as much a part of the annual race as John is. They weren't surprised when Baker first decided to run the Iditarod.

Baker has loved dogs since he was young, said his sister Marcy Fairbanks. He didn't have many dogs of his own while growing up, but a neighbor was willing to share his brood.

''Every night after school we'd go looking for John,'' Fairbanks said. ''We'd find him over there with the dogs.''

Baker can't understand why anyone wouldn't dream of running the race.

''How could somebody not have it in the back of your mind?'' he said.

Baker's love of the race was set aside over the years as he ran a fuel business and became a commercial pilot, helping his mother run Baker Aviation. But in 1996, he started to put most of his attention on the Iditarod. Today, his wife works for the Maniilaq Association, the area's nonprofit tribal consortium, and the couple leases office space to the state. Baker depends on sponsorships from Cominco Alaska, NANA Regional Corp. and Petro Star.

Baker is approaching his sixth Iditarod by trying something new. He's not hiring any handlers to run his dogs during the training season. In past years, he said he didn't know enough about his dogs because other people were running them. This year, he'll know everything about them because he's put himself in charge of running all 22 dogs on his racing team.

DeeDee Jonrowe, a Willow musher entering her 19th Iditarod, said taking care of all the dogs yourself is a lot more work but it can mean top-10 finishes.

''I've had very successful finishes when I was doing everything by myself,'' she said.

When the weather near the Arctic Circle cooperates with Baker's dream, the musher wakes up for a breakfast of oatmeal -- ''mush for the musher,'' he says.

Baker dresses in his snow pants, jacket and boots and goes outside to prepare his sled. Frozen slabs of seal or other meat are stacked inside. Frozen fish are thrown on top. Eleven racing dogs will join Baker on the 30-mile ride to camp.

While he's gone for the day, Iva comes home for lunch to make sure the dog food is cooked. She'll need to feed them later. Alex comes home from school in the afternoon and feeds the puppies. Iva finishes her day at the office and returns home to feed the dogs that didn't run with John that day.

Baker will likely return late in the evening. If he returns during the wee morning hours, Iva will hear the dogs come in.

''That's when I get up,'' she said.

She pulls on warm clothes and heads outside to help tie up the team.

Hours later, Baker's up again, ready to switch teams and take another 11 dogs running for the day. Iva goes to work, Alex heads to school. Both will return several times to do their chores. Iva tries to do as much as she can, but said she might need help in the future. She's expecting a baby due next fall.

As the Iditarod approaches, everyone gets involved. All year, Baker's relatives cook his favorite meals. They put leftover burritos, slices of apple pie and vegetable stew in a vacuum sealer, write Baker's name on the package and put it in the freezer. When it comes time to pack his bags for the race, they give Baker his choices as if from an a la carte menu.

''He definitely does not have a shortage of human food when he leaves here,'' sister Marcy Fairbanks said.

After the bags are packed, the family rents a charter plane to track the Iditarod.

Baker has a knack for pulling people together, Fairbanks said, remembering when their father died and Baker, still a child, helped take charge of the family. 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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