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John Baker walks dogs under burled arch to win Iditarod 2011

Craig Medred,Jill Burke,Joe Runyan

NOME -- Alaskan John Baker from Kotzebue came home to Western Alaska and a crowd of cheering fans to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Tuesday morning.

An Alaska Native son of the 49th state, Baker was chased to the finish line by another native son who just wouldn't say die until the very end. Ramey Smyth from Willow couldn't catch Baker, but his steadfast team helped push Baker's relentless dogs to a new Iditarod record time.

Tired but satifsfied, they reached Nome almost three hours hour quicker than four-time champ Martin Buser of Big Lake did when he set the previous race record in 2002. Baker's time on the 900-mle trail was 8 days, 18 hours and 46 minutes. It took Buser 8 days, 22 hours and 46 minutes on what some believe is a shorter trail.

Iditarod champ Joe Runyan on John Baker's record finish:

Smyth's reputation as a legendary closer at the end of races only raised the odds for a close finish.

The dedicated race fan can now follow the progress of mushers by GPS trackers at the Iditarod web site, and my expert contacts noted Baker gradually increased his lead over the 70-mile finish from White Mountain to Nome during the early morning hours Tuesday. He squelched any idea of a come-from-behind race win by Smyth.

The dizzying possibility of comparing numbers and stats, honestly, leaves me personally disoriented. I can only handle so many numerical evaluations before my mind locks up. However, I can offer a few anecdotal observations about this year's champ Baker, and the immediately likable and self-effacing Smyth, the challenger who continually tested Baker and helped mold this race into an Iditarod record breaker.

I knew Ramey's mother, the late Lolley Medley in the early 1970s when I lived on the Yukon River. A kind and thoughtful woman, she was a mushing enthusiast and skillful designer of gear and harnesses. She started the tradition of the Golden Harness Award, now offered in her memory in both the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and Iditarod, for the outstanding lead dog in the race. Ramey’s courageous run this year to second place is a great tribute to both his mother and his mushing father, Iditarod veteran Bud Smyth. 

Baker has been a great friend of mine and others in the mushing community, too. I have been on innumerable trips to his training camp on Fish Creek, 40 miles across Kobuk Lake from Kotzebue, and have been the passenger on early fall training runs across tundra trails near the village. Baker, who has many interests -- he is a pilot , businessman and active member of the native Eskimo community -- locked onto the sport of dog mushing with a dedicated passion.

His record before this year as the most successful top-10 musher never to win an Iditarod was an amusing sidebar to a conversation, but I don’t think anyone that knows him ever doubted his resolve to win an Iditarod eventually. To those who share his Eskimo heritage,  John Baker’s victory has a particularly symbolic power for a people invested in the modern economy, but still nostalgic for traditional life ways.

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