Butcher, Susan (1954—)

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Butcher, Susan (1954—)

American sled-dog racer and four-time winner of the Iditarod. Born on December 26, 1954, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; daughter of Charlie and Agnes Butcher; married David Monson (1988 winner of the Yukon Quest).

Though she grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Susan Butcher spent her happiest days at the family summer home in Brooklin, Maine, a sparsely populated town on the Atlantic seacoast. Her constant companion was a Siberian husky. To make her position on urban living clear, at age eight, she wrote an essay entitled "I Hate the City." At 16, Butcher, who had learned to sail and work as a skilled carpenter, was rejected when she applied to a boat-building school. The administrators, though regretful, informed her that she was the wrong gender.

After graduating from Warehouse Cooperative School near Cambridge, the teenaged Butcher moved to Boulder, Colorado, where she met a woman who bred and raced sled dogs. For several years, Butcher spent weekdays as a veterinary technician while racing Siberians in local weekend sprints. In March of 1973, she read about the inaugural running of the Alaskan Iditarod (brainchild of Dorothy Page ), which was billed as The Last Great Race on Earth. Two years later, Butcher moved to Fairbanks, where she signed on as a veterinary technician at the University of Alaska musk-ox farm; she also acquired a 15-dog kennel and started training. When the musk-ox farm moved to Unalakleet, a fishing village on Norton Sound, Susan made the move as well. Fortunately for her, Joe Redington, Sr., the father of the Iditarod, just happened to be managing a fishing cannery there that summer of 1977. During the early part of 1978, Butcher lived in a tent near Knik to train her first sled-dog team and simulate conditions of the grueling race.

Each year in late February or early March, during the long Alaskan winter, the Iditarod begins in downtown Anchorage in southcentral Alaska and runs for 1,049 miles through the vast uninhabited wilderness. The historic Iditarod trail began as a mail-and-supply route from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik to interior mining camps—Flat, Ophir, Ruby—and the westcoast communities of Unalakleet, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain, and Nome. Until the arrival of the airplane in the 1920s, the only means of winter travel was by dog team.

Mushers come from Canada, Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Japan, Austria, and Australia to cross the Alaska Range, head west along the winding Yukon River through the arctic tundra, then north up to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast. Fighting subzero temperatures, blizzards that wipe out visibility, long hours of darkness, and treacherous climbs over rough terrain, they cross frozen rivers, cut through dense forests, and scale jagged mountain ranges. Depending on the weather, the race takes anywhere from two to three weeks. Food and supplies are available at 26 checkpoints in small Eskimo villages. Mushers are equipped with an arctic parka, a heavy sleeping bag, an axe, snowshoes, musher food, dog food, and boots for each dog's feet to protect against cutting ice and hard-packed snow injuries. The care of the 12-to-18 dog team is strictly enforced and an integral part of the official rules. Each racer has a different strategy: some run their dogs at night, others by day.

When Susan Butcher entered the Iditarod in 1978, it was the first time three women ran and the first time women placed in the Top 20: Butcher placed 19th, Varona Thompson placed 20th. The following year, Butcher crossed the finish in Nome in 9th place. A few months later, she and Redington assembled a team of dogs and spent 44 days climbing Mt. McKinley, the first to mush a team of dogs to the top.

Page, Dorothy G. (d. 1989)

American mayor, considered the "Mother of the Iditarod." Born in Bessemer, Michigan; died in 1989; married Vondolee Page.

Following her marriage, Dorothy Page moved to Alaska by way of New Mexico in 1960, when her husband Von was hired as superintendent of schools of Dillingham. When Von accepted another superintendency in 1962, the couple moved to Wasilla. Immersing herself in its civic life, Page labored for the city's incorporation in 1974, then served on the Wasilla City Council for ten years. In 1986, she was elected mayor.

In 1964, she served as chair for the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee, working on projects to celebrate Alaska's 1967 Centennial Year. Page happily submerged herself in the state's history, heading two historical restoration ventures that turned the Knik Pool Hall and the Wasilla Community Hall into museums. Becoming aware of the importance of dog teams and the Iditarod trail in Alaskan history, she created the Sled Dog Mushers Hall of Fame in the Knik museum; this marked the beginning of interest in mushing.

In 1965, Page proposed a sled-dog race over part of the Iditarod trail and took her idea to Joe Redington, Sr., who had been involved with mushing in Alaska for years. Together, they headed a small group that planned the first short (60 miles) "Iditarod Trail International Championship Race" and convinced locals to clear years of overgrowth for the first nine miles of the trail. Fifty teams vied in 1967 for $25,000. The purse was partially amassed when Joe and Vi Redington donated an acre of their own land to sell. When the U.S. Army reopened the trail as a winter exercise in 1973, Page and Redington gathered other dog drivers and kennel clubs to organize the trans-Alaska race. Although the inaugural race was fraught with financial difficulties, Page induced musher Muktuk Marston to ante up $10,000; others, now convinced of the soundness of the race, began to contribute. For the next 16 years until her death in 1989, Dorothy Page worked arduously for the success of the Iditarod, edited the Iditarod Trail Annual, and created the monthly Iditarod Runner. "I don't ever want to see any high pressure people getting in and changing the spirit of the race," said Page. Headquarters for the Iditarod is still in Wasilla, Alaska. Population: 4,028 at the last census.

Training 6,000 to 7,000 miles per year for the next seven years would pay off for Butcher. She finished 5th in 1980 and 1981, the first woman to place in the Top Five. (Seven women

had entered the 1980 race.) In 1982, after 16 days on the trail, despite injured dogs and constant storms, Butcher moved up to 2nd—the winner had crossed the line only 3 minutes and 46 seconds before her. In 1983, she placed 9th; in 1984, she again took 2nd. Alaskans began to speculate that it was just a matter of time before Susan Butcher would win the Iditarod.

In 1985, Butcher felt her time had come. But snow in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley was very deep that year, and when the snow is deep the moose use the dog trails. Butcher was in the lead approaching the tent checkpoint at Rabbit Lake when a large cow moose, "eyes wild," stood in the middle of the trail 20 feet in front of her legendary lead dog Granite. Though Butcher tipped the sled over to stop, the moose charged into the team. Butcher was terrified, but she'd met up with moose before. Generally, they "come storming through," she noted, "hitting dogs, the sled and myself, but then they continue down the trail." So she braced for the momentary onslaught, but:

fate would not have it that way. The moose stopped in the middle of the team and reared up on her hind legs, and with her full weight came crashing down on Johnnie and Ruff, two of my strongest team dogs. For the next five minutes, it was a nightmarish blur. I was hearing yelps of my beloved dogs, hearing the cow snorting and growling and the snap of her hind legs striking out against dog after dog all up and down the line. My mind was whirling with thoughts to protect my dogs and myself, but no solution came up. Then suddenly she stopped, square in front of me. … I pulled off my parka, waving it in her face, trying to scare her off. She charged me. I backed off. But again I tried. She backed off to the front of the team where she had a free avenue of escape, but instead she charged again. … I went slowly up through the team releasing necklines and tugs so the dogs tangled could retreat.

By the time another musher appeared and shot the moose, the animal had killed two of Butcher's dogs, Johnnie and Hyde, and injured 13 others. That year, to the surprise of all, Libby Riddles was the first woman to win the Iditarod. With Butcher's tender care, her dogs recovered (though she still felt the loss of Johnnie and Hyde); the following year, Susan Butcher finally won her first Iditarod, taking 11 days, 15 hours, 0 minutes, and 6 seconds. She repeated her win in 1987, setting a new record of 11:2:5:13. In 1988, when she again crossed the finish line first in 11:11:41:11, she was surrounded by cheering fans and T-shirts that read "Alaska: Where Men are Men and Women Win the Iditarod." Though she did not win in 1989, the women were accounted for: DeeDee Jonrowe finished 4th. Butcher returned to win in 1990, breaking her own record and setting a new record for the northern route, 11:1:53:23. She was now only the second person to win the race four times.

In 1991, Butcher's 3rd place finish was with first-rate style. Ordinarily, the run from Ophir to Iditarod, the halfway point in the race, takes about 12 hours, but the race was plagued by storms and that year it took 25 hours. For almost 80 miles, Butcher and Jonrowe took turns in front so neither of their lead dogs would become discouraged. Both snowshoed ahead of their teams, leading them on. Just before she crossed the halfway line at Iditarod, Butcher stopped her team and asked the race judge if she could park her dogs and wait to cross. "We mushed 80 miles together," she said, "and I want it to be a tie." The two women crossed together and were the first to share the halfway prize. When Butcher hit another storm after leaving White Mountain in the lead, she turned back, feeling that her dogs had endured one storm too many.

Out of her last 14 races entered, Butcher has finished in the Top 10 in 11 of them. She has set the Iditarod speed record of 11:1:53:23, and records in four other races: the Norton Sound 200, the Kusko 300, the Arctic Coast 200, and the John Beargrease Race in Minnesota.

Riddles, Libby (1956—)

American sled-dog racer and the first woman to win the Iditarod. Born on April 1, 1956, in St. Cloud, Minnesota; daughter of Mary Riddles.

Libby Riddles, who began mushing in 1979, placed 18th in her first Iditarod in 1980 and 20th in 1981. While living in Teller, a village north of Nome, she trained her team by running into the cold winds that swept in from the Bering Sea. Though Susan Butcher was the favorite in the 1985 race, Riddles pushed on when other mushers held back. The run from Shaktoolik to the next checkpoint is about 50 miles across the ice. With bad weather closing in, only a few hours of daylight left, and the possibility that she could lose the trail because of blowing snow, Riddles decided to take her chance. She was the only musher to leave that day; the others, because of darkness and blizzard conditions, waited until the following morning. Her perseverance paid off, and Riddles won this, only her second, Iditarod.

suggested reading:

Riddles, Libby. Race Across Alaska: First Woman to Win the Iditarod Tells Her Story. Stackpole Books, 1988.

Susan Butcher lives north of Fairbanks in Manley with husband David Monson. Together they operate the Trail Breaker Kennels. "I pride myself in taking the best care and spending the most time with my dogs of all long distance racers," said Butcher. "My lead dog training and love of my animals are the reasons for my success. I have fantastic dogs to work with." Twice named Women's Sports Foundation's Professional Sportswoman of the Year in 1987 and 1988, Butcher was also named Sled Dog Racer of the Decade in 1989 by the Anchorage Times and was selected Outstanding Female Athlete of the World by the International Academy of Sports.


Stout, Peg. Alaskan Women in the Iditarod. State of Alaska: Alaska Department of Education, 1992. (Funded by Title IX.)

Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1992.

suggested reading:

Nielsen, Nicki J. The Iditarod: Women on the Trail. Anchorage, AK: Wolfdog Publications, 1986.

related media:

Alaska's Great Race: The Susan Butcher Story (57 min.), Pal Productions, 1989.