Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cool Running

During a recent visit to a kennel in the Mat-Su valley Team Baker checks out a trail for a quick run. Leaving the dog yard, the dogs seem unruffled by other excited dogs. Amidst the barking dogs around them, Velvet and Snickers gently stretch out the line, ears perked up as they listen for the quiet kissing sound from John’s lips indicating it’s time to go. In one subtle motion the team moves together with agility and a very smooth gait. Loose and limber, each dog runs effortlessly and calmly away from the noise and excitement.

Even while watching the composed appearance of the Team Baker musher and dogs it’s apparent this team is ready to rock n roll!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Competitive Edge

Training season is over and we can’t wait to see what Team Baker can achieve in Iditarod40.

Returning as the defending champs, the Team Baker dogs have arrived! To Anchorage, that is, for the start of the 2012 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Even though the pressure to repeat last year’s win has been rising, what is most apparent from Baker is the respect he has for the competition.

The most recent opportunity John had to demonstrate a high regard for the competition was in January when Rohn Buser beat Baker by 30 minutes to win the Kusko 300 Sled Dog Race. In fact, when asked by KYUK Radio what it would have taken for Baker to defeat Buser we heard John respond by acknowledging Rohn and the Buser family and he reminded us that this is “Rohn’s day.”

Ramey Smyth and John Baker in Nome
2011 Iditarod Sled Dog Race
Others showed similar qualities at the finish of the 2011 Iditarod race. When interviewed by the Anchorage Daily News, second place finisher Ramey Smyth said "It's a little hard not to win," and added "But there's no person in this world that I'd rather be beaten by, if I came in second, than John.”

Also interviewed by the Anchorage Daily News, Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey called Baker "a cool cat” and said, "The thing I like about John -- he don't get his feathers ruffled easily. He's calm. He's very patient with his dogs," and he went on to say, "But he's a perfectionist. You don't see him making wasted moves or yelling or discouraged with the dogs' performances."

Compliments aren’t the only thing on the rise lately. Iditarod40 features six champion race entrants plus many more top contenders who are hungry for a win. Expectations are being stoked for a very ultra competitive race. Can we assume there is tension between all these teams eager to beat yesterday’s record? What’s with all the compliments and where are the tensions and when will we hear some competitive smack?

It’s unlikely we’ll hear negative comments from John Baker about his competition. Why? “Getting an edge on the competition isn’t done by measuring my team to the other teams,” says Baker. He explains that he doesn’t set out to race against the other teams “based on what they can do.” Baker seeks to achieve a competitive advantage by focusing on “what his team can do better than any other.”

Even the mightiest of teams need a strong field to be their best and Iditarod40 has a long list of challengers. Despite an absence of smack talk, we can be assured each musher is gearing up to show what his/her team can do best.

Who will be out in front and stay in front or fail to be in the lead and retreat remains to be seen.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Dog Yard

It’s been rather calm in the dog yard these last few days.

For the past few months, the race training and preparation has been intense. Now, the training is over and the team must put what they have been preparing for into action. Accordingly, the preparation for all that is needed to be race ready is done. Anticipation and excitement for the race start is what we sense from musher and dogs.

John Baker, 2011 Iditarod Champion
 Are there any worries on the horizon that could upset this calm? Most of the big unknowns are out of anyone’s control and a lot is in the hands of Mother Nature so worrying about it doesn’t help. “Being prepared for whatever comes is necessary but worrying about whether it will happen is a waste of time and energy,” says Baker.

What Mother Nature can throw at the teams can be a game changing factor for the worst and the best. Weather is always one thing to keep an eye on. The nearly 1000 miles of trail go through major climatic zones with varied weather conditions. Cold weather is preferred especially for the dog’s sake. Yet just how cold is relevant to temperatures the dogs are accustomed. Warmer temperatures can be more comfortable for the musher but not necessarily for the dogs to run.

On top of that, trail conditions such as heavy snowfall and reports of moose on the trail keep a team on high alert. To startle a moose on the trail can create hazards. So far, the trail reports have been good. However, an unexpected turn for the worse in any of these areas could trip a carefully planned race strategy. Last year, with ideal weather and trail conditions, John and the dogs set a new race record. And, since Team Baker’s win, expectations are high for the team in this year's race seemingly adding more pressure.

Velvet, 2011 Golden Harness Winner
 Yet the calmness exhibited in the dog yard is perhaps best described through the eyes of a dog. As the lead dog, Velvet seems to know that there is always something to worry about as she keeps a close eye on John. Frankly, it’s the musher’s job to worry about what could go wrong and for the dogs to focus on getting the job done. The good news is, John and the dogs always seem to find a way to overcome whatever obstacle is thrown their way.

Team Baker will leave for Anchorage shortly and the atmosphere in the dog yard is relaxed and calm. The team is ready to handle whatever comes on the Iditarod Trail as they run their own race, even the unexpected.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Traveling with Dogs

Team Baker on the lagoon in Kotzebue

Traveling with dogs is what John Baker loves most. He says “it's a perfect day for a run” on this sunny day with light winds and the temperature at about twenty below zero. Today, Team Baker runs one last time on their home turf before leaving for the start of the 2012 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. It's a relaxing run before the big race.

Ripple has star power

Team Baker trains in the Arctic where the vast stretches of land seem endless, and navigating the terrain requires skill, knowledge and experience. Traveling with dogs is all about teamwork. In this part of the world it is also necessary for musher and dogs to have expertise in traveling and surviving in the icy wilderness. A traditional knowledge passed on to John is based on generations of Inupiat who have traveled with dogs for thousands of years. 

John has operated a sled dog racing kennel in Kotzebue, Alaska for twenty years. Since 1996 John and his dogs have been strong contenders in the Iditarod. Last year the team won first place and smashed the record by three hours. Now, Team Baker prepares for another Iditarod. This time Baker returns as the champion to defend his title. Eleven of the sixteen dogs from the 2011 team are returning to travel with Baker this year. 

Frankie exudes happiness
Baker's 2012 Iditarod team roster has been final for some time so each team member is familiar with one another. Team Baker enters this year's race with a strong returning line-up with twelve dogs who have all been on the Trail. The two famous leaders, Velvet and Snickers, who led the team for a record-breaking win in the 2011 Iditarod will once again be out in front. Behind them will be a solid group of Iditarod race veterans including: Rambo, Ripple, Huffy, Kona, Mongoose, Summit, Sprocket, Speckle, Fender, and Sonar. Four rookies, Angel, Swift, Frankie, and Ocean, with race experience in the Kobuk 440, will travel this trail for the first time.
Team going for a run outside of Kotzebue

Qipmigaq (Inupiaq word pronounced kip-mi-gak translates to traveling with dogs) expresses Baker's viewpoint. John says he feels "privledged to be traveling with such an amazing team."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Packed and Ready to Go!

John reviews checklist

While packing for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race John looks over the checklist again, and again. Careful planning prior to the race means anticipating what will be needed, assembling supplies, cutting meat and fish for the dogs, and cooking meals for the musher. Large bags filled with food and supplies such as dog booties, vet supplies, and sled runners are flown to each checkpoint prior to the race by the Iditarod Volunteer Air Force. 
A high-calorie diet is planned with methodical estimates about the right quantities of fats and proteins for the dogs who will consume up to 10,000 calories per day during the race. A typical meal consists of Redpaw's high-performance dry dog food combined with meat in hot water for a soupy mix.

Drop bag
Pre-cooked and vacuum sealed meals are packed for the musher. John loves breakfast and has a variety of choices including waffles with bacon, french toast with reindeer sausage, sourdough pancakes with link sausage, quiche, and oatmeal with raisins. He also has a wide selection of lunch and dinner meals such as caribou soup, pork medallions with polenta, chicken enchiladas, rice and curry, and goulash.




John's favorite snack is a combination of dried caribou, dried whitefish, muktuk, and greens mixed with seal oil. A traditional Inupiaq trail food for a quick boost of energy.

Velvet watched all the organized chaos of the packing with calm confidence. This will be her sixth Iditarod and her knowing expression suggested, no big deal, it’s just another race!

Finally, Team Baker is packed and ready to head south for the Race! The anticipation has been mounting all year. Everyone wants to know what should we expect from the team this year? And when prodded John becomes playful and teasing. His expression says it all . . . we'll just have to wait and see . . .