Sled-dog racer Susan Butcher's aversion to civilization and love of dogs drew her from Boston to Alaska when she was twenty years old. The former city girl embraced the Alaskan wilderness, and tested herself against it, as she learned the art of mushing, or driving a sled led by a team of three to twenty dogs. She became one of only two people to win the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race four times, and was the first to win three in a row.
Loved Animals, Hated the City
Butcher was born December 26, 1954, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a college town near Boston. She is the youngest of two daughters of Charles, a chairman of his family's chemical company, and Agnes Butcher, a psychiatric social worker. Both parents were progressive thinkers who encouraged their daughters to achieve whatever they
set their hearts on, and to be self-sufficient. Charles bought his daughters carpentry tools and taught them basic building skills. He spent years with his daughters teaching them to sail and trying to restore an old sailboat. Early on, the urban bustle of Cambridge did not agree with Susan Butcher, who began a school essay with "I hate the city" when she was eight. She always preferred animals and nature. Her Labrador dog, Cabee, was her best friend.
Butcher's parents divorced when she was eleven, and her world was torn apart. She and her sister remained with their mother, but the situation was rocky and both girls left home in their teens. Butcher also was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability, which explained her struggles in school. She was a natural at sports, and played softball, basketball, field hockey, and loved to swim and row. She excelled at math and science and, with the help of a tutor, she made it through her English classes. Cabee died when she was fifteen, and her aunt gave Butcher a husky, Manganak. It was love at first sight, and she soon got a second dog.
After high school, Butcher and her dogs left for Colorado, where her father and stepmother lived. She found work for a woman who bred and raced sled dogs, and borrowed her dogs to learn how to mush. She quickly learned the important voice commands—like "all right" for "go," "gee" for "turn right," and "haw" for "turn left"—and found she had the physical endurance necessary to thrive in the sport, and found she was good at it.
Began Preparing for the Iditarod
The first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was run in 1973 in Alaska, and when she read about it in a dogmushing magazine, Butcher knew Alaska is where she wanted to be. At age twenty, Butcher found work in Alaskan canneries and as a veterinary technician. She bought three husky puppies and added to her pack whenever she had a little extra money. To learn self-reliance, she went into the Alaskan wilderness with her dogs and lived in a small cabin with no electricity or plumbing. Fifty miles from the nearest road, she brought all her supplies in with her and killed a moose or caribou to feed herself and her dogs. In the wild, dogs live in packs, with one "alpha" or leader dog. Butcher is extraordinary in care and training of her dogs and bonds with each of them, becoming in essence their alpha dog.
On the way across the wilderness to a friend's house for Thanksgiving dinner, Butcher fell into icy water while mushing her team of twelve dogs. She and the dogs survived-25-degree temperatures because Butcher found a cabin and tore up the floor to use for firewood. They arrived to dinner a day late. After three winters in the Wrangell Mountains, Butcher traveled to Knik, Alaska, to meet Joe Redington, the man who started the Iditarod. She worked for him, training his young dogs, and learned from a master. When Redington predicted Butcher would one day win the Iditarod, the men who heard him laughed. For practice, Butcher entered shorter mushing races like the Kobuk 220, the Norton Sound 250, Kusko 300, the Coldfoot Classic, the John Beargrease race, and the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. She set records in many of them.
Butcher entered her first Iditarod in March 1978, at age twenty-three. The race starts in Anchorage, and travels 1,049 miles across the Alaskan tundra, forests, sea ice, and tiny communities to finish in Nome, usually in eleven to thirty-two days. Teams stop at dozens of checkpoints, and dogs typically get more rest than mushers on the trail. Each dog requires 8,000 calories a day, and Butcher cooked rich meals of beef, beaver, liver, fish, bacon, and seal blubber for them over a campfire. After a grueling sixteen days, Butcher crossed the finish line in Nome in 19th place. She used her $600 prize money to buy another dog, Granite. Butcher finished the 1979 Iditarod in ninth place, one spot ahead of her mentor, Joe Redington. Butcher worked cannery jobs to support her dogs, and went into debt to feed and care for them, even when she was forced to sleep in her car. Butcher finished fifth in both the 1980 and 1981 Iditarods.
A Dangerous Run-in With a Moose
Butcher met David Monson after she charged $6,000 worth of dog food with him that she thought she could pay for, but couldn't. The two were married in 1985, with Monson moving 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle to Eureka, Alaska, to live with Butcher at her Trail Breaker Kennels, where she bred and kept over 100 huskies. Butcher loves every aspect of dog breeding, from giving them affection to tending to their veterinary care herself. Too far from a vet, she gives shots, draws blood, and births her own dogs. She trains them daily to run in teams and pull a nearly 500-pound load up to seventy miles.
More than sixty mushers and 1,000 dogs started the 1982 Iditarod. An hour into the race, Butcher's fifteen-dog team—led by Granite—slid off the trail into a tree, injuring three dogs. A violent snowstorm followed and Butcher strayed ten miles off course in whiteout conditions. She dropped the injured dogs off at a checkpoint and forged ahead in 60- to 80-mph winds. She had to drop two more dogs, and Butcher coaxed her nine-dog team into Nome just three minutes, 43 seconds behind the winner, her friend Rick Swenson.
|1954||Born December 26 in Cambridge, Massachusetts|
|1962||Begins a school essay with "I hate the city"|
|1969||Receives first husky dog as a gift|
|1970||Moves to Colorado and works for a sled-dog breeder, begins mushing|
|1973||Moves to Alaska|
|c.1974-76||Spends three winters training in the Wrangell Mountains|
|1976||Travels to Knik, Alaska to meet and train under Joe Redington|
|1977||Jumps into freezing cold water for publicity to secure sponsorship, Redington predicts she will one day win Iditarod|
|1978||Enters and finishes 19th in her first Iditarod|
|1980||Charges $6,000 worth of dog food to David Monson|
|1985||Pulls out of the Iditarod after being attacked by a pregnant moose|
|1985||Marries David Monson|
|1988||Becomes first person to win Iditarod three times in a row|
|1990||Sets Iditarod time record (16 days, one hour, 53 minutes) that remains until 1994|
|1990||Becomes second person to win Iditarod four times|
|1994||Retires to raise a family and tend to her dog-breeding business|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1978||Nineteenth place, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race|
|1979, 1983||Ninth place, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race|
|1980-81||Fifth place, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race|
|1982, 1984, 1989, 1992||Second place, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race|
|1986-88, 1990||First place, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race|
|1987, 1990||Named Professional Sportswoman of the Year, Women's Sports Foundation|
|1991||Third place, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race|
|1993||Fourth place, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race|
After finishing ninth in 1983 and second again in 1984, Butcher went into the 1985 feeling at the top of her game. Just after the fifth checkpoint, however, she and her team were charged by a pregnant moose, who became tangled in the team's harnesses. The moose killed two dogs and injured thirteen more before another musher shot it. Butcher dropped out of the race.
Four Time Iditarod Celebrity
After a crash early in the race, Butcher was the first to pull into Nome after eleven days on the trail in the 1986 race. She put her $50,000 prize money back into her kennel, which now housed more than 150 dogs. She raises each dog herself and sells them to mushers for $1,000 to $11,000 each—but only if they do not meet standards for her own team. Granite led Butcher's team to the win again in 1987. Her back-to-back win stirred up a furor over men and women competing together. Her longtime friendship with Rick Swenson ended because of it.
Warm temperatures wreaked havoc at the start of the 1988 Iditarod. Butcher spent twenty-four hours repairing her sled with duct tape and a pocket knife after crashing in muddy conditions. She ran next to the sled, which could not carry her, for three days until she could exchange it for another one. Butcher finished the race in first place, despite gale-force winds and cold. She was the first musher to win Iditarod three times in a row. Millions of T-shirts have been sold that read: "Alaska. Where the men are men and women win the Iditarod."
An intestinal virus plagued Butcher's dogs on the 1989 Iditarod trail, and she finished second. She set a course record of eleven days, one hour, fifty-three minutes, and twenty-three seconds to win in 1990. Now, she and her old friend Swenson were the only two mushers to win the race four times. She finished second in 1992, fourth in 1993, and did not place in 1994. She retired from racing to start a family, but her Trail Breaker Kennels remains one of the most respected in mushing.
Butcher's history-making accomplishments made her a celebrity in the lower forty-eight states. She traveled during the summer, giving speeches, signing autographs, and appearing on Good Morning America, Today, and the Tonight Show. When she took Granite to the White House to meet President George Bush, the dog got his own hotel room, ate beef from a silver platter, and was addressed as "Mr. Granite."
Related Biography: Dogsledder Joe Redington
Born in Oklahoma in 1917, Joe Redington is known as the "Father of the Iditarod." He moved to Knik, Alaska in 1948 and made a career of raising sled dogs after receiving one as a gift. He initially used his dogs in military search and recovery missions in Alaska from 1949 to 1957. He founded the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race in 1973. The race follows the actual trail that was used in the early 1900's during the gold rush to deliver supplies and mail to mining camps. A 1925 outbreak of diphtheria challenged a group of mushers to a "race against death" to cross Alaska and deliver life-saving medicine to Nome. Redington died of cancer in June 1999. Per his wishes, he was buried in his favorite dogsled in a specially made vault. A life-size, bronze memorial statue of Redington was unveiled in 2003.
Dolan, Ellen M. Susan Butcher and the Iditarod Trail. New York: Walker and Company, 1993.
Johnson, Anne Jeanette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Littlefield, Bill. Champions. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1993.
Wadsworth, Ginger. Susan Butcher: Sled Dog Racer. Lerner Publications, 1994.
Sketch by Brenna Sanchez