April 18, 2014

2012 Champ John Baker—Leaders Velvet and Snickers return for this year’s team

2011 Champ John Baker—Final team Choices to travel with Snickers and Velvet—Tuesday, March 28 by Joe Runyan

By Joe Runyan, 1989 Champ

Background

John Baker of Kotzebue, Alaska dominated the 2011 Iditarod with a strategy of prudent runs in the first half of the race that put his team of steady trotters into position to seize control of the race in the last half.

John with leaders Velvet and Snickers

To do that, he embellished the steady strategies of previous champs like Norwegian Robert Sorlie and 4XChamp “ The Incredible” Lance Mackey.   Briefly, that means John trained his dogs to travel essentially at the same speed from start to finish.  John expected that many teams would be travelling faster in the early parts of the race, which is exactly what happened over the first three days.  

Obviously, to win the Iditarod, it also means that John was also anticipating travelling faster at the end of the race, one of those upside down realizations that slow and steady wins the race.  However, in the competitive setting of the Iditarod race, John’s team wasn’t exactly a turtle, it was a well-trained, slightly subdued jack rabbit with lots of power.  It also means that John was patient for the first three days of the race, waiting for the right moment to seize control of the race and lead the pack.

the champ at the finish with Jake and Lucille Adams

To train a steady dog team requires a combination of luck, art, science, patience, and a couple of great LEADERs—enter the irrepressible Velvet and Snickers.

Enter Velvet, age 7, and Snickers, age 5— Baker’s top leaders

I have taken a great interest in Velvet and Snickers.  In early May 2011 I travelled north of the arctic circle to visit John in his hometown of Kotzebue.  It is still possible to drive dogs late in the spring in this northern village on the Bering sea coast when mushers to the south are wading in break-up mud.

Kotzebue sits on the shore of Kobuk Lake, a huge freshwater basin of unusual abundance.  In May, for example, “Sheefish,”  a freshwater tarpon look-alike run under the ice.  It’s a local custom to travel out on the ice and jig for the ten to thirty pound fish.  John told me to take Velvet and Snickers in the lead, along with four other of his finishing Iditarod champs, and travel out on the ice for afternoon fishing by dog team.

This offer was promptly accepted.  Snickers and Velvet, after all, led the 2011 team which now has the fastest time ever posted—-a phenomenal 8 days, 8 hours, 46 minutes, 39s.  I was also to learn that I was the only person, other than John, to drive these two—a real honor.

The sensation driving this team of six dogs is one of sustained power.   What’s it like?  Normally, you expect fresh dogs to bolt out from the dog yard in a full lope, but this crew of big 60 to 65 pound males led by Velvet and Snickers quickly settled into a smooth trot.  This is uninterrupted power with each dog leaning into the harness, backlines stretched taut to the towline.   I think it’s fair to say that almost any one who appreciates animals, especially the fluid movements of truly athletic animals, would understand that this team is special.

I thought Velvet was a perfect name because this seven year old female is absolutely smooth—pure mechanical athletic grace.   Snickers is a driver, leaning into the harness at that top end trotting speed, but honestly, I didn’t think she was as smooth as Velvet.  In hindsight, I remember a faint little tick, a slight nearly indectable wobble.  Think how it feels to run with a tender knee or a crick in your neck.  You make adjustments in stride. 

Whisper, and I mean just think, “Gee” or “Haw” and these two would move as a synchronous pair to the left or right.

john training on kobuk lake

About twenty miles from Kotzebue we arrived at the fishing area.   The pleasure of directing the leaders around snowmachines and in between ice holes using voice commands in perfect control and then parking the team with a quiet “whoa” commends the team.  This is the fastest and most controlled sled dog front end in Iditarod history, and promised myself to treasure this afternoon expedition.   Certainly, the leaders respond to John’s soft voice at another, more involved  level. 

Several “sheefish” later we returned at the same high speed trot over the ice of Kobuk Lake to John’s kennel.  At the time, I felt Velvet was biomechanically perfect and Snickers worked hard  

Status check On Velvet and Snickers for Iditarod 2012  :  Snickers goes to the Dentist                                                                                                                      

Naturally, you can understand my interest in Velvet and Snickers.   I called John on February 19th and casually asked about his two female leaders.

“Snickers went to the dog dentist,” John told me, a statement without immediate content.  I really didn’t know what to say.

“She’s always had a little weep on the side of her cheek.  Over the last three years we have given her antibiotics to clear it up.  Finally, we figured out that she had an abscessed tooth.  She just had the tooth pulled about a week ago and the weeping is gone.”

Of course, I asked if he was going to use her in the Iditarod.  John reported that Snickers, with a noticeable change in behavior, is happy and animated.

john training, kotzebue in background

“Since she had the tooth pulled, she has been really driving in the front.  Sometimes she breaks into a lope just to get the team trotting faster, which is something she has never done before.”  

Presuming that Velvet was always the natural athlete, I asked John to assess his two main leaders.  “I think, right now, that Snickers is the best.”

Final Thoughts, Strategy

I suspect that the little tic, the slight movement of the head, was Snicker’s accommodation for dental discomfort.  I am going to really watch her when she exits the start chute on Saturday.

Of course, John has other leaders, notably a two year old female named Swift and Summit, a four year old male.  Still, if all goes to plan they will always be paired with either Velvet or Snickers.

Bottom line for anyone placing bets in Vegas—John’s championship front end is not on vacation.