INTERVIEW: CATCHING UP WITH: JOHN BAKER

John Baker is always less than thrilled with anything short of victory.Yet at last year’s Iditarod finish, while still in his usual blue bibs stained from 10 days of dog food grease, Baker was inexplicably pleased by a come-from-behind odyssey that barely nudged him into the top 10. He finished eighth.As it turned out, two noteworthy events lifted his spirits along the wind-polished ice of Norton Sound. For one, Baker’s dogs finished strong – it’s always fun passing teams in the home stretch – and second, his first-year handler, Tollef Monson, reached a milestone of his own by piloting Baker’s second string to 10th place. At the finish line, Baker wasn’t reflecting backward so much as looking forward to a core of talented veteran dogs and a staff he could count on to bring those dogs to their peak in 2008.“We definitely have strengthened the program to where I’m confident that not only are we raising and training better dogs, but we’re also getting a system down for racing them,” Baker said in early October. “We’re in a place that gives me a lot of confidence, if nothing else.”Baker was born into a family operated aviation business. He started out as a pilot and business manager, but long ago set his sights on winning the Iditarod. He is one of a handful of Alaska Native mushers who run the race. He has been among the Iditarod’s top 10 in all but one race in the last decade. If anyone should have already had confidence, it is Baker. Few can boast that kind of record in an event where increasingly an error or stroke of bad luck can drive a dog team not just out of the top 10, but out of the top 20. The race isn’t forgiving. There are simply too many talented dogs and drivers willing to pass a team who falters.Now approaching his 13th Iditarod training season in a row, the 46-year-old from Kotzebue seems more relaxed, excited, and confident than usual about the winter ahead. In mid-October, the machinery of the kennel has now swung into full gear. A foot of snow blankets the area. The dogs are bulking up, 16 at a time, by pulling a 1983 Chevy three-quarter ton pickup. “They can go as fast as they want with the truck,” Baker says. “It’s a bigger truck and this is Kotzebue on gravel roads, so if they can go 7 or 8 mph, they’re probably happy.” Meanwhile, Monson has just shown up after a summer hauling in gillnets for salmon near Kodiak Island, and is already hard at work building tough sleds capable of banging around on the tundra.Top 10 handler, and more.. Another season is getting underway, but it has a couple of new twists. A big part of Baker’s strengthening program and his growing confidence comes from the people who surround him. They’re skilled. Team Baker is starting to look a little more like Team Norway in that respect. Not only is the tough, relaxed and talented veteran Monson back, but Baker has help from Minnesota’s Jamie Nelson, long respected by mushers for her dog savvy. To add to the team’s strength, a third helper showed up this year: Ben Girard of France. Girard practically fell out of the sky – a gift from Baker’s friend and competitor, two-time Iditarod champion Robert Sorlie. Sorlie didn’t need Girard’s help this year and asked if Baker would take him on. Baker quickly found room. Girard spent winters with Doug Swingley and, more recently, with Sorlie, so he understands the workings of Iditarod-winning kennels. The trio of trainers – Baker, Monson and Girard – are in charge of their own subsets of Baker’s 60-dog kennel, with the hope that each musher will be ready to race in the Iditarod this year. Baker will have the A-team; Monson will guide some promising two-year-olds; and Girard has the challenge of ensuring that a large yearling team makes it to Nome.“We’ll sort of all train together, in the loose sense of the word,” Monson says. They get together each morning and evening to talk about training, dogs and what’s coming up next. Still, they might not see much of each other on the trail. “There’s a big discrepancy between what John’s dogs need to do versus Ben’s dogs,” Monson noted.They all speak highly of each other. Baker deadpans that he may be hard-pressed to finish ahead of his second team, which is driven by the ever-improving Monson. “With Tollef racing the way he is, he thinks he can win the Iditarod. I’ve got to be on my toes not just about everyone else in the race, but also my own partner,” Monson, 28, laughs off Baker’s tongue-in-cheek prediction and downplays any ideas about victory this year. He points out that he’ll be running a string of talented but still young two-year-olds. He won’t have the depth to be competitive. “As much as he (Baker) may not want to admit it, he is driving the A string, and they are the A string for a reason,” Monson says.And Girard? “Ben is a knowledgeable guy, a hard worker, and he has a lot of ideas,” Monson says. “Both John and I are learning from him as well. He really spends a lot of time thinking things through. I think he’s a pretty talented musher in his own right.”Baker’s dogs, appropriately, should receive the biggest boost from having good staff around. “I still spend a lot of time away,” Baker said, explaining that he frequently travels to villages and schools. In the past, that time away came at the expense of time with his Iditarod team. “Now, Tollef and Ben are doing as good a job as I could with the training, so I have no worries,” he said.They’ll be spending most of the winter at Baker’s camp about 25 miles from town. That’s a relatively new twist to the training program. The camp is at the edge of a forest, while nearby Kotzebue is treeless and prone to high winds and whiteouts. Ever since he started basing his winter operations out of the camp, Baker says, training runs have become more regular. The trees block enough wind to allow workouts in just about any weather.It will be interesting to see how that teamwork pans out not only in the Iditarod, but also in early season races. Each of the three hope to run some mid-distance events in January. Being able to race is one of the benefits of handling for Baker. Living in Kotzebue, with its sky-high Bush cost-of-living, he doesn’t offer a paycheck. “It’s really, really hard to have qualified people to help us, like Tollef and like Ben,” Baker said. “The only way I can see them wanting to stay with a guy like myself is to give them an opportunity to go race. They never question me, they work hard, they learn, and they are willing to race and care for dogs the same as I would.”Monson, who has already completed three Iditarods, would love to enter his first Yukon Quest to springboard his two-year-olds into the Iditarod. He isn’t the only musher who saw Lance Mackey use the 2007 Quest as a forge to toughen his dog team. Ken Anderson, and probably others, hope to run a smart Quest with their Iditarod dogs. Monson said he’d gauge the dogs and his budget and make the decision later in the winter.Baker said he enjoys the Kuskokwim 300, but he would also like to try the Copper Basin 300 and other races. Hard lessons learnedBaker says he never stops learning, and every race teaches at least one new lesson. Take last year’s Iditarod, for example. He was reminded the hard way that you can bounce back from early setbacks over a 10-day race. Baker had a game plan that would have catapulted him to Rohn near the head of the pack, but he was one of the many mushers who missed a critical right turn into Dalzell Gorge. He not only lost an hour and a half of run time, but also allowed the gaffe to leave him irritable. The race is a mental game, and dogs pick up on a musher’s bad moods.The team had a good rest in Rohn, but Baker quickly ran into more trouble. One of his runners snapped off at the footpad. This led to another setback at the infamous glacier a couple of hours out of Rohn. The glacier is a steeply sloping hillside lacquered with frozen runoff. Mushers go uphill while making a hard right turn, typically on glare ice. Some mushers wear cleats to deal with it. Baker’s damaged sled was tough to steer, and his dogs sucked him right into some trees at the top of the glacier. In the ensuing tangle, Baker let several dogs loose, got the sled situated, and then hooked the team back up. That’s when he realized he was short a dog.For some reason, the dog had trotted back down to the bottom of the glacier. Baker waited for another musher to come along and ideally, collar the dog and bring it up to him. No luck. Nobody came by. An hour later, Baker worked his way down and found the dog sleeping at the bottom of a rock. He lost a couple more hours in that adventure.The team then worked extra hard in an effort to make up for lost time, and they paid the price. Baker wound up seeing four of his best dogs looking tired by McGrath, and he wisely opted to take his 24-hour layover right there. He still had 16 dogs.“At that point, I just decided to take it easy to the coast, then cut my rest short and start doing the things we like to do to be successful in a race,” he said. By the time he’d reached Unalakleet, the team was back in gear and he was able to make up some ground. He only took a couple of hours rest at Shaktoolik and blew through Elim, passing some teams along the way. Baker cruised into Nome with a smile in eighth. The bad stuff, he says, “is just a part of racing and it happens to all of us. Last year was one of the most troublesome races I’ve ever had. Who knows, if I hadn’t been conservative, maybe I would have finished in 40th place.”In addition to having his team rise to the occasion by the coast last year, Baker was able to chat with Monson at Unalakleet. That moment alone is a great memory for him. Monson had his doubts going into the race, despite a game plan that would have had him finishing right about 10th place. By the time he’d reached Unalakleet, Monson finally saw he had that exact goal in his grasp. “It was one of the neatest things I’ve ever seen in my life. He realized how good he was doing, and he has believed in himself since then,” Baker said. “Now the confidence is there, and he’s just a changed person.”Monson agrees. “I have a lot more confidence in my own abilities. You can say, ‘I can do this’ but until you actually do it, there’s still that element of uncertainty.”Baker himself exudes confidence – in his dogs, himself, his program and his handlers. Now all he has to do is put all the pieces together just right. Nothing short of perfect will do, because there are plenty of teams breathing down his neck.Jon Little is a five-time Iditarod finisher and mid-distance racer from Kasilof, Alaska, who posts stories and photos on the web about the Iditarod and other Alaska races.

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