“The bond with a true dog is as lasting as the ties of this earth will ever be.” Konrad Lorenz
There aren’t many sports where women and men are on a precisely level playing field, physiologically speaking. A strength-to-weight ratio may give one gender a narrow advantage in one activity, whereas another sport may favor a greater range of flexibility. We’re talking nature, not nurture. Dog sled racing – with human and canine athletes working together – is one example where men and women go mano a mano with little physiological advantage over one another.
So what does it say that Susan Butcher was one of history’s best mushers? It says she was a fierce competitor in one the of world’s most grueling endurance events. It says she identified her passions from a young age. It says she was tough as nails. And like any other athlete who so thoroughly dominates a sport the way that Butcher did, it says her approach forever changed dog sledding.
I do not know the word ‘quit.’ Either I never did, or I have abolished it.
Butcher was a sled dog musher who competed in the infamous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for 17 consecutive years, from 1978 to 1994. She placed in the top five in 12 of those attempts, winning outright four times. From 1986 to 1992, she and her team of dogs held the course speed record, besting their own record twice in that span. The one race she did not finish in those 17 years was in 1985, when a moose attacked her team, killing two dogs and injuring several others.
As Butcher came up in the Alaskan sled dog scene, she was criticized for her dog training style, which many assumed was too soft, too nurturing. She had been training dogs since she was a 16-year old girl, so she shrugged it off and remained committed to her gentle approach and year-round fitness training. The critics were quieted when she went on a winning streak from 1986 to 1990 (first place every year, save for 1989). Her training methods changed the sport for many and have become one of her strongest legacies.
Butcher didn’t always know that she wanted to be a musher, but she always knew she needed animals and wilderness to feel fulfilled. Born in Massachusetts in 1954, she moved west in her college years to study as a veterinary technician in Colorado. There, she borrowed a sled dog team and learned to mush in the Colorado plains and foothills. After college, she moved to Alaska and began training in earnest for her first Iditarod in 1978.
For perspective on the difficulty of this race: The average distance of the two annually alternating courses is 1,100 miles. Each team has one musher and 10 to 16 dogs. The fastest finish ever was eight days, 22 hours (record set by Martin Busser in 2002). Or the conditions may pit you toward the slowest time eve: 32 days, 15 hours (John Schultz, 1973). Variability is the only constant in the weather, which tends to hover in the -20º to 20º F range. Or once again, the ghost of 1973 could rear its ugly head and send wind chill estimates down to -130 F.
Butcher was hooked. After her first race in 1978, she was a lead member of the first dog-team ascent of Denali in 1979. Her fellow team members were Joe Redington, founder of the Iditarod, and famed Denali mountaineer Ray “Pirate” Genet, who helped establish the West Buttress route up the mountain.
Not that her gender explicitly matters in this non-gendered sport, but she was the second woman to win the Iditarod (1986) and the only woman to join the four-time winner’s club, an elite group with only five other members. She and her lead dog, Granite, flat out dominated the race in the late 1980s. The Iditarod Trail Committee even copyrighted a logo, “Alaska: Where men are men and women win the Iditarod.”
Her accomplishments earned her many awards, including being named posthumously as an inaugural member of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. By all accounts, she was universally well-liked and respected. March 1st, the traditional start of the Iditarod, is now called Susan Butcher Day in Alaska.
Butcher died at the young age of 51, in 2006, due to complications from an aggressive form of leukemia. Today, her husband and two daughters continue the kennel they all began together, for their own love of dogs and in honor of Susan.
“There was not one single moment that told me I wanted to become a professional dog musher. It was more a thing that, throughout my life, I knew I would be working with animals. I knew I would be especially working with dogs, and I knew I would be living in the wilderness.” — Susan Butcher
Below is a video of her induction into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
For more on Butcher, pick up Susan Butcher and the Iditarod Trail, by Ellen Dolan.
Blair Braverman’s book, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, is a look at a young woman’s life breaking into the dog sledding scene, and a terrific read.