When John was growing up, flying airplanes came first, and he learned to fly at the age of 14. This put him on a career path as a commercial pilot and manager of the family’s air taxi business. Over the years he continued to maintain a keen interest in sled dogs and provided air support to local mushers and dog races. Finally in 1992 he seriously began to build a kennel of his own, pursuing a dream he had always longed for – to have a team of competitive sled dogs with which to win the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
Today, sled dog racing has become a full-time career for Baker, and a way of life for his family. Recognized as a highly competitive musher, Baker is one of very few who actually go south to compete in the Iditarod. By choosing to live in Arctic Alaska, John has gone against the conventional wisdom of those who achieved success in the mushing world, and who encouraged John to move. They suggested that to be successful in the sled dog racing world a musher must live on the Alaska road system. Baker has proved that theory wrong, and he is proud of what his dog team from Arctic Alaska has been able to accomplish.
Where does John live and train?
The land that Team Baker calls home in Northwest Alaska hugs the coast line of the Chukchi Sea. It encompasses an area that is 38,000 square miles, most of which is above the Arctic Circle. There are 11 villages that make up this region: Ambler, Buckland, Deering, Kiana, Kivalina, Kobuk, Noatak, Noorvik, Selawik, Shungnak – and John’s home in Kotzebue. Kotzebue is the largest of all the villages with a population of roughly 3,200. In Inupiaq, Kotzebue is known as Kikiktagruk, or “almost an island.” This is because it is located along three miles of a 1,100 to 3,600- foot wide gravel spit on the Baldwin Peninsula, which extends into the Kotzebue Sound near the mouths of the Kobuk, Noatak and Selawik Rivers. Kotzebue is 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 549 air miles northwest of Anchorage. It is a gateway to the region’s other communities, and to natural wonders such as the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, the Noatak National Preserve and the Kobuk Valley National Park.
Iñupiat Eskimos have lived in the Kotzebue area for at least 600 years. Its coastal location at the terminus of three major rivers in northwestern Alaska made Kotzebue a major arctic trading hub long before European contact. Iñupiat from interior communities as well as visitors from the Russian Far East traveled to Kotzebue to trade furs, skins and seal oil, among other valuables. Commerce activity increased following the arrival of whalers, Russian fur traders, gold miners, and missionaries. The federal government introduced reindeer herding to Kotzebue in 1897. Kotzebue was named for the Kotzebue Sound when a post office was established in the community in 1899. Throughout the 20th century, expanding economic activities and services in the area enabled Kotzebue to develop at a rapid pace to become the largest community in Northwest Alaska. Kotzebue was incorporated in 1958.
What is the land and climate like in Kotzebue?
Kotzebue is located in a transitional climate zone characterized by long, cold winters and cool summers. Because it is on the coast, the Kotzebue climate is more temperate than elsewhere in Northwest Alaska. The average low temperature in winter months ranges from seven degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) to 12 degrees below zero. The average winter high temperatures range from two to nine degrees Fahrenheit. Summer lows range from 25 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit, summer highs 50 to 60 degrees. Temperature extremes have been measured from 52 degrees below zero to 85 degrees above. The daily low temperature in Kotzebue dips below freezing around 250 days per year. Snowfall averages 40 inches per year, rainfall nine inches, with more than 100 days of precipitation per year. Kotzebue Sound is free of ice from early July to early October. Kotzebue topography consists of a gravel and tundra spit, low bushes and no trees.