2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race winner John Baker with his lead dogs Velvet and Snickers. Photo/Associated Press
I spent the week of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race earlier this month drifting out to my computer at all hours of the night to check the GPS and see where my favorite mushers were on the Iditarod trail during the annual 1,100 mile sled dog race.
Perfect weather, a great trail, and a wonderful team of dogs, including a winsome blue-eyed leader named Snickers and another named Velvet, all came together to propel Inupiat Eskimo native John Baker to the finish line in 8 days, 18 hours, and 46 minutes, breaking Martin Buser's record of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes that stood for 9 years.
To say native Alaskans are proud would be an understatement. When he crossed the finish line, Baker was greeted with cheers, tears, applause and even some native Alaskan drumming.
While 4-time champion Lance Mackey had a bit of a rough race this year, his comments at the finish line cemented my conviction that he is a class act all the way through. Mackey had to drop his lead dog, Maple, early in the race because she had a sore shoulder. After that, he had to leave dog after dogs at checkpoints because they were tired, sore or just didn't want to pull. He came into one checkpoint with two dogs in the sled.
Mackey also had a tough time at the beginning of the 2010 Iditarod as some kind of virus hit his team. He nursed them through and by the end of the race, they were 100 percent and carried him across the finish line. This year, some dogs in the Yukon Quest race a couple weeks before Iditarod had Kennel Cough, and brought it with them to the Iditarod. Kennel Cough is not a deadly disease, but the dogs don't feel their best and they don't want to eat well, which is crucial in a race such as the Iditarod. Mackey this year thought it best to drop the dogs that weren't 100 percent and just move on with the rest. He crossed the finish line in 16th place with 7 dogs, but they were a healthy, eager 7, giving him the Fastest Time from Safety to Nome award.
Because the dogs Mackey had to drop were his most experienced, he literally raced with a rookie team. He found he had a solid new leader, a dog named Wilson. He now has 7 new veteran dogs, and he's excited about next year.
"I've been asked 100 times if I'm disappointed, and I can't help but just laugh, because I wasn't supposed to win one (Iditarod) much less four. I've got a brand new dog team, there's 7 new veterans here, (and) I got a new leader out of the deal. I think anyone in the top 20 of the Iditarod should be proud," he said.
He went on to congratulate Baker on his win.
"I think its great, not only for the sport but for the villages that have supported him. John's been working as hard as anybody at this, and it was just a matter of time."
I appreciate this great athlete and cancer survivor who is known for his dog handling skills and his care of his team. I'll be looking forward to what Mackey will bring to the race next year.
As soon as I can connect with him, I'm sure our local veterinarian, Michael Walker, will have some stories from the trail and some photos to share. And, in the "it's truly a small world" category, I also discovered that a Prescott chef, Todd Bulock, was the chef at the McGrath checkpoint during the race! I also hope to connect with him when he returns!
So...the race is over for this year, but the stories aren't! Stay tuned!