Passing of a Legend
The world of mushing lost one of its most beloved members on Saturday, August 5th, 2006. Susan Butcher’s death from complications of leukemia treatment is a blow to all Alaskans, and especially those of us who love the sport of dog mushing. She was one of the greatest mushers who ever lived, and an inspiration to us all.
Susan was born in Boston in 1954. She was a lover of animals from the very beginning, and after graduating high school in 1972, she moved to Colorado to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. There she was introduced to the sport of dog mushing, which was to become her great love. After three years she completed vet tech training and followed her heart to Alaska.
In 1975, dog mushing was still in transition from being a traditional Arctic mode of transportation to being a competitive sport. Joe Reddington, Sr., and a small group of dedicated mushers had started the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race a few years earlier. There was still controversy surrounding the race, and whether a single sled dog team could safely race 1100 miles from Anchorage to Nome. In those early days, the race took three to four weeks.
Susan apprenticed herself to Joe, and learned everything she could from him about mushing. She was intensely interested in sled dog breeding; she believed it was key to a winning team. She also had the radical idea that the musher and the dog team are a unit, that the bonds between them are forged from close association and deep love. Each dog was a friend, not just a four-footed furry pulling machine.
After a few years working with, and learning from Joe, Susan struck out on her own. She moved to a cabin in the wilderness where she lived alone with her dogs. She trained intensely, twelve to fifteen hours a day. She worked on developing a breed line of sled dogs with stamina, heart, and toughness.
She ran the Iditarod for the first time in 1978, and finished in 19th place, a notable accomplishment for a rookie. And then she ran every Iditarod for the next 16 years. She only scratched once, in 1985. She was in the lead; it was the first half of the race and she was traveling at night when a starvation-crazed moose stomped its way through her team, killing two dogs and seriously wounding 13 more. It was devastating to Susan. That was the year that Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod. One can’t help but wonder whether Susan would have had that honor had the moose not intervened.
The following year, 1986, Susan did win this incredible, grueling race. And the year after, ’87. And the year after that, ’88. She remains to this day the only musher to win three consecutive Iditarods. She was the source of the oft-repeated saying, “Alaska—where men are men, and women win the Iditarod!”
In 1989, Susan came in second by a matter of minutes. In 1990 she achieved her fourth Iditarod win. Only one musher, Rick Swenson, has won more Iditarods than Susan. He has five wins. Susan’s fastest race was in 1993, when she finished 4th—in 10 days, 22 hours, 3 minutes.
She retired from racing in 1995 to have a family with her husband and fellow dog musher Dave Monson. They have two daughters, 10 and 5 years old.
She continued to breed and train sled dogs, and to be an avid promoter of the sport. She and her husband own Trail Breaker Kennels in Fairbanks, and I was delighted to purchase a beautiful young female from them in 2001. I spoke with Susan several times by phone, discussing mushing philosophy and which dog would best suit my needs. She was always warm and friendly and easy to talk to. I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet her.
Susan Butcher has been an inspiration to mushers the world over for twenty years. She was a superb athlete, with total dedication to her sport. She set a high standard for quality dog care in racing. As the sport of mushing began to penetrate American awareness in the Lower 48, hers was the name and the face that people knew. She personified dog mushing, and was its tireless ambassador. Her death at age 51 is a devastating loss to all Alaskans, and to all dog mushers.
Labels: Dog Mushing