John Baker of Kotzebue beat the elements and a pair of Iditarod champions, breaking away from Lance Mackey and Martin Buser early Sunday morning and cruising to victory in the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race.
Baker and his team of 10 dogs reached the finish line in frigid, wind-blown Bethel at 6:26 p.m. to claim the $20,000 prize for first place in the sport's richest mid- distance sled dog race.
"This is the type of race we've been working 15 years to be able to compete in and win," Baker said in a finish-line interview with KYUK radio. "... It shows we're going in the right direction with the dog team."
Baker, 47, took command early Sunday morning on the 50-mile run from Kalskag to Tuluksak.
Baker, Mackey and Buser arrived at Kalskag within a minute of each other -- Baker and Mackey at 3:01 a.m. and Buser at 3:02 a.m. Baker left at 3:03, Mackey at 3:05 and Buser at 3:48. Both Mackey and Buser dropped two dogs at the checkpoint but Baker kept all 11 animals in harness for the ride to Tuluksak.
Baker made the run in 5 hours, 32 minutes -- 36 minutes faster than Mackey. After a mandatory four-hour layover during which he dropped one dog, Baker left Tuluksak at 12:35 p.m., followed by Mackey at 1:16 p.m. and Buser at 1:40 p.m.
Though he was never threatened the rest of the way, Baker never took victory for granted as he drove his team across the glare ice of the Kuskokwim River.
"When you're racing with people like Lance and Martin, you never know," he told KYUK. "When I was coming across the finish line, I kinda looked back, because you just never know."
But Mackey, a three-time Iditarod champ from Two Rivers, and Buser, a four-time champ from Big Lake, were far behind. Buser claimed second place at 7:53 p.m. Sunday, and Mackey was poised to take third place.
As is often the case in the Kusko, which began Friday evening in Bethel, weather was a big factor. Wind chill temperatures of minus-60 and howling winds made the race difficult for man and beast.
Mushers dropped dogs liberally due to the conditions and former Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey scratched on Saturday with frozen eyeballs, according to a race official. The 60-mile Akiak Dash, at first postponed until today because of brutal cold, has been postponed again, with officials hopeful they might get it in on Tuesday.
"It's everything the Kusko is known for," Mackey told KYUK during his layover in Tuluksak. "High winds, low snow and lot of dirt, grass, sand, mud and of course glare ice."
Mackey said the ice on the Kuskokwim was so polished he could see three feet down into the river.
"Smooth as glass," he said -- which is great for hockey or figure skating, but not so great for dogs.
With or without booties, Mackey said his dogs couldn't get traction on the ice. He opted for no booties, because with booties the animals were slipping so much they risked shoulder injuries. No booties put their feet at risk, but Mackey said he'd rather deal with hurt paws than hurt shoulders. And he didn't hesitate to drop dogs that looked distressed.
"Anything at all that looks remotely close to abnormal, I'm leaving them," he told KYUK.
By the time he left Kwethluk -- the final checkpoint before the finish line in Bethel -- Mackey was down to eight dogs, having dropped six. Buser was down to seven.
But Baker finished with 10 of his original 14 dogs, including two females who led the team for the entire 300 miles. Velvet, a 5-year-old Iditarod veteran, teamed up in the lead with Snickers, a younger dog that will keep her job as leader when she makes her Iditarod debut in March, Baker said.
Baker, who runs a 35-dog kennel, boasts several top-10 Iditarod finishes, including third place last year. He has won the Kobuk 400 but had never placed higher than fourth in the Kusko.
"Winning this race nowadays, it's not that easy to do," he said. "So there's a real sense of accomplishment when you do it."
Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4335.