Alaska Native wins Iditarod for 1st time since 1976

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Tue Mar 15, 2011 4:24pm EDT

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - John Baker won the storied Iditarod Sled Dog Race on Tuesday in record time, becoming the first Alaska Native champion since 1976.

Baker shattered the course record by nearly three hours, finishing the 1,100-mile race in eight days, 19 hours and 46 minutes. The previous record was set in 2002 by four-time champion Martin Buser.

Driving a team of 10 dogs, Baker sledded along snow-covered Front Street in Nome, Alaska, as he approached the finish line, under a polished burl, or knotted wooden, arch.

He was greeted by drummers and dancers from his Inupiat tribe, and a large crowd of relatives and supporters from his home town of Kotzebue, which is about 180 miles north of Nome.

"Running a team like this, there's nothing better," Baker said at the finish. "This is the way life is supposed to be."

The Iditarod commemorates the 1925 rescue mission that delivered diphtheria medicine to Nome by sled-dog relay.

Baker, the first Alaska Native to win the competition since 1976, was the first ever Inupiat champion of the race.

The Inupiat are the Eskimo people of Alaska's northern and northwestern coast. Their language is distinct from that of the Yupik people, who are from the more southerly parts of western Alaska. They have common traditions based on whaling and other subsistence food-gathering activities.

Among those celebrating Baker's win was Denise Michels, the first Inupiat to be elected mayor of Nome.

"I've waited eight years to tell you this," she said, after hugging Baker. "On behalf of the city of Nome, congratulations on coming to the burled arch first."

At the finish line, Baker received an oversized check for $50,400, keys to a new truck and floral wreaths for his lead dogs. The new champion said he did not realize he was on a record pace until the final hours of the race.

"I didn't have any thoughts about breaking the record. That dawned on me last night or early this morning," he said. "Breaking the record was certainly the icing on the cake."

Baker, 48, is a commercial pilot who flies small planes between rural villages in northwestern Alaska, an area that lacks road links. His home of Kotzebue, a mostly Inupiat city of about 3,200, lies above the Arctic Circle.

Baker is one of the few Iditarod champions who lives in a truly rural part of the state. Most top mushers live along the roads north of Anchorage or in the Fairbanks area, with easy access to supplies, business partners and corporate sponsors.

He has been a consistent top-10 finisher over the past several years and has placed as high as third in the past.

Past Native Iditarod champions have been Athabascan Indians from interior Alaska.

The Iditarod began on March 5 with a ceremonial, untimed run in Anchorage. Sixty-two mushers and their dog teams began the race. As of early Tuesday, 11 had dropped out.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Greg McCune)

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