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 Wasilla couldn't catch Baker, but his steadfast team helped push Baker's relentless dogs to a new Iditarod record time.
Tired but satisfied, they reached Nome almost three hours 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, 19 hours and 46 minutes. It took Buser 8 days, 22 hours and 46 minutes on what some believe is a shorter trail.
The Iditarod alternates between northern and southern routes in the Interior of Alaska in even and odd years. The southern route through the old ghost town of Iditarod was used this year. It is thought by most mushers to be longer, and in fact, a GPS satellite tracking system for the race showed it so by about 20 miles.
But the race route varies so much from year to year, and the GPS is so unreliable in tracking the small but prevalent zigzags, dips and rises in the trail's surface that no one really knows the true distance of either route. The GPS said 936 miles this year, but the odometers on some snowmachines making the run have clocked over 1,000 miles.
Not to mention that the year Buser set his record, the starting line for Iditarod was in Wasilla for the last time. The Wasilla start made the race 15 to 20 miles longer than it is from the start this year in Willow. Another 20 miles in running distance could add a couple of hours to the race, but even taking that into consideration Baker was faster on his way to accomplishing a feat that rocked the mushing world.
Never before has an Iditarod musher labored as long for victory as Baker. He won in his 16th try. Never, despite coming close several times, has an Inupiaq from Western Alaska won the race, either. And not in decades has a musher from rural Alaska won.
Baker changed all that in one marvelous, unprecedented victory. The winner was mobbed by teary-eyed family who greeted and hugged him in the finishing chute on Front Street in Nome. The crowd was riotous.
"It's the biggest win in Inupiat history," said Sheldon Katchatag, an elder from the Native village of Unlakaleet, an Iditarod checkpoint south of here. "This is historic. It has taken 39 years. There have been other Alaska Native (champs) but never an Inupiaq. We are the people who have the culture and tradition of mushing.
"When I left to go to Mount Edgecumbe (boarding school in Southeast as a youth), I left my dad 16 dogs that could easily go from Anchorage to Nome without booties and probably faster than most of these dogs. (This is) the biggest deal since Jimmy Huntington -- known as the Huslia Hustler -- won the Fur Rondy Championship."
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