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Yesterday & Today

Improbable Champion

Susan Butcher won Alaska’s grueling Iditarod 
dog-sled race four times. Her 2005 leukemia diagnosis marked the beginning of her greatest challenge. By Jocelyn Selim
Susan Butcher leads her dog-sled team on Norton Sound close to the coastal village of Elim, a checkpoint near the end of the 1991 Iditarod. The trek of more than 1,000 miles ended in Nome. | Photo by Jeff Schulz /
Susan Butcher leads her dog-sled team on Norton Sound close to the coastal village of Elim, a checkpoint near the end of the 1991 Iditarod. The trek of more than 1,000 miles ended in Nome. | Photo by Jeff Schulz /

In 1985, Susan Butcher was a favorite to win the Iditarod, the grueling 1,000-mile-plus dog-sled race across Alaska’s empty interior that some consider the toughest athletic event on the planet. Over the previous five years, Butcher had enjoyed a meteoric rise from total unknown to top contender, including second-place finishes in the Iditarod in 1982 and 1984.

Susan Butcher. ​Photo by Betty Udesen / The Seattle Times
Although a few women had completed the race in prior years, none besides Butcher had come even close to finishing among the top contenders. Many thought the race was too brutal to be won by a woman—a typical Iditarod at that time took close to two weeks to finish, during which time a musher might sleep for a total of 24 hours, all the while braving 100-mile-per-hour winds, blizzards with whiteout conditions and potentially deadly thin ice.

On the surface, Butcher seemed an unlikely person to shatter the Iditarod’s glass ceiling. Just 5 feet 6 inches and of average build, she was hardly physically imposing. Moreover, she wasn’t a native Alaskan. Born Dec. 26, 1954, she grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Butcher knew at an early age that she wanted to escape to the wild. She moved to Denver when she was 17 and learned the essentials of mushing from a woman who raced dogs there. She also took veterinary technician classes at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, but had no interest in sitting in a classroom, instead preferring the outdoors.

Her family was skeptical when she decided to relocate to the remote Alaskan wilderness to raise and race dogs professionally. But Butcher was nothing if not determined. When, in 1975, the 20-year-old moved to the Wrangell-St. Elias Range, 50 miles away from the closest road, she felt she was exactly where she wanted to be.

“She loved the outdoors. She loved the dogs. She loved the adventure and the solitude,” says David Monson, a successful musher who met Butcher in 1980, a year after she became the first person to lead a dog sled to the top of Mount McKinley. The couple married in 1985 and lived in a one-room cabin in Eureka, Alaska, where they ran a kennel and trained hundreds of dogs. “She was very competitive and focused on her dogs—that’s what really made her different.”

Butcher was well-known for her close relationship with her dogs. “She understood them, really un-derstood why they did things for her,” says Monson. “She had a trust-and-be-trusted relationship with them. She relied on them as much as they relied on her, and that’s no small thing. … Out in the wilderness with no GPS—a hundred miles away from anything—dogs have a sixth sense that can save your life. There are countless times that they pulled her away from thin ice or avalanches.”

Butcher was one of the first mushers to live and train with her dogs year-round. She had a near-obsessive focus on the minutiae of how they were eating and performing. Initially, competitors ridiculed the way she nurtured her canines. “At first it was, ‘Oh, Susan babies her dogs so she’ll never win,’ ” says Monson. “Then, after she started winning, it changed to, ‘Of course she does well. It’s because she takes the best care of her dogs.’ ”

Overcoming All Odds
In 1985, Butcher’s dogs were looking especially good, and many thought this would finally be her turn to win. As expected, she started out in Anchorage in the lead, well ahead of more than 60 other competitors. Then, about 120 miles in, Butcher and her dogs came face to face with a starving, pregnant moose that blocked the trail. Butcher, traveling at night, had no chance to steer her team away. The moose kicked her lead dog against a tree. Terrified, Butcher ran to the front of her team, waving an ax to try to frighten the moose into running away.

It didn’t work. For 20 minutes, the moose kept coming at Butcher’s team of 17 dogs. The attack only ended when the next contestant, who happened to be carrying a gun, reached Butcher and her team. He shot and killed the moose, but the damage to her dogs had been done. Butcher, who minutes before had been driving the best team of her life, now surveyed the carnage. Two of her dogs were dead and 13 were injured badly enough that it wasn’t clear whether they would ever race again. Butcher and her team were flown to her veterinarian in Anchorage, where she slept in the veterinary hospital several nights with her teammates.
Meanwhile, a young woman, Libby Riddles, had taken a massive gamble in the Iditarod by heading out into a fierce storm that the other contestants had decided to wait out. Riddles’ gamble paid off with a first-place finish, and Butcher knew she had lost her chance of being the first woman to win the Iditarod. “Libby winning especially at the time frame that she won, which was only two weeks after the moose [accident] and when many of the … dogs who had lived through it were still at the vet [was difficult],” she said. “It was [a bit like adding] insult to injury of sorts, but it’s the lesser of the problems that occurred that year,” Butcher later recalled in another interview.   

Despite the blow, quitting wasn’t in Butcher’s makeup. “If I set the goal to win, I expect to win,” she wrote. “I do not know the word ‘quit,’ ” she said later. “Either I never did, or I have somehow abolished it from my language.” As her dogs recovered, Butcher’s mind turned back to the Iditarod.


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