UNALAKLEET -- When Darlene Katchatag received her share of reindeer cuts to prepare for the Native village of Unalakleet's annual potluck, she set three steaks aside.
"These are for John Baker," Katchatag told her husband, Sheldon, who watched the Iditarod standings Sunday from the village checkpoint as Baker outpaced his nearest challenger by three hours.
Baker, who lives in Kotzebue, 26 miles above the Arctic Circle, is a hometown favorite in Western Alaska. After years of top five finishes, he's on the verge of becoming the first musher from that part of the state to win an Iditarod title -- and, at the same time, end Lance Mackey's four-year reign.
It's about time an Inupiaq won the world's premier dog-mushing race and about time Baker was the one to do it, Sheldon Katchatag said. "He has been too hungry for too long."
Baker arrived in Unalakeet at about 5 a.m. Sunday, resting just four hours before leaving ahead of Hans Gatt of Whitehorse and Willow's Ramey Smith.
In between, the 48-year-old musher leaned against his trademark blue sled, arms folded, talking softly with his brother Andy. A private conversation and a private man.
Compared to Mackey, who roars into checkpoints firing taunts and proclamations like a 160-pound professional wrestler, Baker wears a poker face.
He chooses his words carefully and reveals little. (You still have 11 dogs in harness? "Mm-hmm.' How do they look? "Good.")
But this year, Baker's dogs are making a statement.
Smyth called the team -- dogs that look like the Iditarod huskies of old with their thick coastal fur -- "the toughest dogs in Alaska" on Saturday. Still trailing Baker a day later in Unalakleet, Smyth's remarks focused on the musher.
"One the toughest drivers out there," he said.
By Shaktoolik, with about 200 miles of trail left, Smyth had cut the lead to 41 minutes, setting up a showdown between his fast-run, long-rest style and Baker's endurance team.
Baker's dogs are arriving at checkpoints alert with all eyes on their boss, noted Iditarod Inside analyst Bruce Lee. That's a good sign in a punishing, 1,000-mile race that relies on the health and will of dogs to deliver a musher to Nome.
Baker's cousin, Craig McConnell, grew up with the musher in Kotzebue. As an elementary school kid, Baker seemed drawn to dogs, McConnell said.
"He always had that passion," said McConnell, who played on the Kotzebue high school basketball team with Baker.
The pair won a 1978 state championship, he said. Their team mascot?
Last year, Baker was a contender to unseat Mackey when he became confused outside of the Cripple checkpoint, believing he was on the wrong trail.
Now, for the first time, Iditarod officials are allowing mushers to bring a personal global positioning system unit on the trail. While Mackey scoffed at the gadgets, other mushers are using the GPS to manage their speed along the trial.
Baker has said "it would have changed the race" had he had one of the units in his sled last year. This year he finds himself glancing at it when he's bored, he said.
None of the 10 frontrunners Sunday night had an Iditarod victory on his resume. A new champion is virtually guaranteed with four-time winner Lance Mackey trailing in 11th place and saying he's known since the village of Nikolai that he can't win an unprecedented fifth time in a row.
Some of Baker's closest competitors are saying that they can't catch him, though it's tradition for dog drivers to try to psyche out opponents late in the race.
"I have tons of horsepower, but I don't have speed. I don't have a team which has a second gear," said Sebastian Schnuelle, who finished second in last month's Yukon Quest but is known for outlasting teams -- not out-sprinting them.
Hans Gatt, just 45 minutes behind Sunday night, also said he didn't think he could overtake the Kotzebue musher.
"Hans says that every year," said Iditarod veteran Aaron Burmeister, who is tracking this year's race along the trail. Burmeister, who finished seventh in the 2009 Iditarod, wasn't ruling anything out.
Despite mushers' earlier complaints of kennel cough, Gatt's dogs looked as strong as any except Baker's on Sunday morning, he said.
Smyth sized up the competition as he fed his dogs.
"John and Hans and Sebastian are all awesome," he said at the start of a five-hour rest to refuel for a final drive. "Hans has an incredibly fast team. Sebastian has an incredibly steady one."
The Willow musher, who sometimes runs with his team and has won the award for the fastest run from Safety to Nome seven times, looked at his watch as he waiting to leave the village. Ariel Tweto, one of the stars of the Unalakleet-based reality television show "Flying Wild Alaska," stood nearby as Discovery Channel cameras roamed the sunny checkpoint.
Smyth is counting on pure speed to make up the distance on Baker. Burmeister expected the musher to make his move after Elim.
At the checkpoint, Smyth told Tweto he was aiming for first place.
"I either bomb out or win," he said. "One or the other."
Baker sat eating a stack of pancakes in Unalakleet on Sunday across the table from former Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey.
Seavey nearly cut a finger off using a folding replacement knife along the trail earlier in the race. The Iditarod flew him into Unalakleet after a surgeon saved the digit.
His hand cocooned in a thick bandage, Seavey observed the mushers from the sidelines.
Baker arrived with 11 big, strong dogs. "They've got good weight," Seavey said. "They were perky and animated when they got there. I don't see how John could be happier with his team."
The trail was "beautiful" into the village, Baker said. Lead dogs Snicker and Velvet replaced Summit and Sonar, who kept making mistakes.
While Mackey seems to relate to Smyth's journeyman grit, he said Sunday it would be "great for the sport and state of Alaska if Johnny Baker could pull this off."
McConnell thinks so too.
"For one year, we'd be able to feel that pride of having an Iditarod champion from not only the rural community, but the Alaska Native community," he said.
An Inupiaq, Baker is one of the relatively few Alaska Natives running the modern Iditarod.
Asked if he feels the expectations to deliver a win for Western Alaska weigh on him, Baker said he doesn't think about it.
"It's tough enough getting a dog team down the trail to worry about things you can't control," he said.
When he's not training, Baker works as a motivational speaker, talking to kids in rural northwest Alaska and the North Slope, his brother said.
He talks about setting goals, working hard.
"That really sums him up," said Andy Baker. "His steadfast focus on pushing forward."
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