AT HOME WITH THE Titan of the Trail : Competition: Susan Butcher runs her own kennel and nurtures the pups, forging the unusual bond that has made her dog sled teams the best in the world.
It was a moment of warmth in a chilly, unyielding land. Twelve dozen Alaskan huskies yelped, growled, yipped and howled from their hutches on thawing muskeg and stretched wet paws toward Susan Butcher.
Butcher returned the adoration. She chanted.
“Bugga, bugga, buggabeen . . . the fastest dog there’s ever been.” Her song was for Sluggo, a honey-beige husky with a sore paw. It was raw from ice balls that formed between his toes last month when he was leading Butcher’s team to victory in an 11-day streak of masochism known as the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. It was Sluggo’s first win. It was Susan Butcher’s fourth.
“Dugadee. Dugadoo. Dugadog.” That call was for Granite. He has won three Iditarods and, says Butcher, is the finest sled dog of this decade. If Granite were a horse he’d be Secretariat.
Then this iron woman crouched deep among her dogs and the spring-softened snow and wrapped arms around Elan’s shaggy neck; flopped on her belly on a plywood doghouse to say boo to Tolstoy; and wrinkled her nose against the wet black plug of Heifer’s nose.
And Susan Butcher--emotionally stale from airlines and motels and real clothes, mentally exhausted by 10 days of victory greetings, public speaking and a meeting with President Bush--finally was home.
Home. That’s Trail Breaker Kennel, five acres of bush surrounding an 80-year-old log cabin that once belonged to a Gold Rush blacksmith. It is most of Eureka (Elev. 270, Pop. 6). Just a scatter of mining shacks among stands of silver birch at the end of 140 miles of dirt road not far beneath the Arctic Circle.
Hers is life without television, running water, flush toilets or a bathtub. There’s a single telephone hooked by satellite to a Seattle area code, but that’s for husband Dave Monson to use because Butcher regards a ringing phone as the ultimate intrusion and refuses to answer it. A run to the grocery store is a four-hour rattle by truck to Fairbanks.
Only in isolation approaching privation, Butcher says, can she maintain an uninterrupted focus on breeding and training sled dogs. Only away from the noise, stink and structures of man can she intensify an unusual personal bonding with her dogs. Only from here can she concentrate on winning next year’s Iditarod.
For a decade, she explains, she has concentrated on a companionship that starts with a puppy’s first breath and produces dogs ready to drop for her--huskies that have made her not just the best woman dog sled racer in the world, but the best dog sled racer in the world.
Some frustrated mushers have suggested that a separate Iditarod race be staged: one for men. In sour recognition of her fixation on winning, blind stubbornness to the point of impoliteness on the trail, and an easy acceptance of huge risks that repel mere males, she has been given a nickname: Ayatollah Butcher.
* In any endurance athlete’s life the Iditarod stands as a death wish--a lopsided gamble against survival across 1,130 frostbitten miles, mountain ranges, blizzards, and frozen seas between Anchorage and Nome. Only two persons have won the Iditarod four times--Rick Swenson, 38, of Two Rivers, Alaska, and Susan Butcher, 35.
* The race record is 11 days, 1 hour and 53 minutes. It belongs to Butcher. Her fifth Iditarod championship, said Joe Reddington Jr., a racer and son of the 1972 founder of the Iditarod, may be considered an inevitability. If anyone breaks the 10-day barrier, believe other experts, it will be Susan Butcher.
* In the past winter’s schedule of sled dog races--marked by such contests as the John Beargrease Marathon and the Coldfoot Classic--Butcher entered six events. She won four and was second in the others.
“What was the total frustration for the mushers is that Susan took three totally separate teams (to the races),” Butcher said. In conversation she often inserts herself in the narrative. “Both Susan’s A and B dogs blew away the other teams and took 10 hours off the record in the Beargrease.
“The C team finished just seven minutes behind the winner in another event and would have won it if Susan hadn’t been sicker (with flu) than a dog.”
There are few places in Alaska where this happy woman with a smile stretching from here to the Aleutians can move unrecognized. She has visited two Presidents, been commended by legislatures, won the medals and awards of world organizations and visited the Soviet Union to counsel perestroika mushers and set trails for next year’s Alaska-Siberia race.
Butcher has run her dogs in Switzerland and is a friend of Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because each has been elected to membership in the American Academy of Achievement. Her racing has produced a major cottage industry in her home state; the smug legend of a million T-shirts sold says: “Alaska--Where Men are Men and Women Win the Iditarod.”
Rarely is Butcher an also-ran, except to a media darling like Granite.
On this month’s victory tour, the 9-year-old husky, now retired to stud, was given his own room at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis and the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C.
Letters from hotel managers were addressed to “Mr. Granite” and propped against baskets of Evian water from the French Alps and silver platters of ground round.
“There were times,” Monson joked, “when we felt the introduction would be: Here’s Granite who won the Iditarod three times with . . . er . . . um, the couple that owns him.”
Yet such world attention has cost.
Resentment has been raised against Butcher by veterans who raced in obscurity for years because nobody cared much about the Iditarod--until a woman won. Then came reporters from Sports Illustrated and ABC’s “World Wide of Sports” and Australia and Japan. Said former champion Swenson: “She’s a good competitor but that’s all I can say.” Then he said more: “You could ask yourself what have they (Butcher and Monson) done for anyone else in the sport? They just take, take, take.”
Because her trademark finish has always been a sprint--even after 11 days of the punishment of the Iditarod--there are whispers that Butcher feeds drugs to her dogs.
“Her teams go so fast at the end of the race,” said Robin Jacobson of Squaw Lake, Minn., who finished sixth in this year’s Iditarod. “I can’t understand a dog having a three- or four-day adrenaline rush. It would kill them. So that’s where . . . there is doubt in a lot of minds.”
Monson--a lawyer and public defender, among many former trades--finds all such suggestions slanderous. Racer Reddington thinks the accusation should be shoveled aside with caribou droppings. But most important, Jack Morris of Wasilla, Alaska, veterinary director of this year’s Iditarod, said there was routine urine testing--en route and at the finish--of several dogs on Butcher’s winning team.
“All samples were clean,” Morris said. “If there was any kind of cheating, we’d catch it.”
Butcher, a woman of uncluttered beliefs, sees another root of the resentment: male frailty.
“I have become a symbol to women across the country--and internationally, in fact--and I’m not going to say that there wasn’t a lot of strength gained by that thought and by the support (from women) that I got,” she said. She’s sitting cross-legged in a deep armchair in the log cabin and Meaty, a 17-year-old Siamese, is asleep in her lap. “The Eskimo women, the Indian women literally giving me the physical support of saying as I came through the villages: ‘Do this for us.’
“It is an amazing feeling to have an Eskimo woman, who has had a totally different upbringing from myself, who lives a very traditional life, male-femalewise, to look to you to win a race to give her a moral boost.”
Most competitors also don’t recognize the spiritual link Butcher says she has with her huskies.
In fact, Butcher says, maybe only husband Dave and Trail Breaker’s teen-age dog handlers, Tanya Schlentner and Jennie Tschappet, the group she calls “the sacred few,” fully understand.
But to them the flair is clear: Susan Butcher is to Alaskan huskies what Dian Fossey was to gorillas.
“I was born with a particular ability with animals and a particular love for them,” she said. “I think that what you get from animals, and what I got from my first dog, one of my first close friends, is the security of constant love.
“An animal loves you and you love them and that is just constant. I needed that as a child. I have some compositions here, some of those one-liners you write in the first grade. Mine said: ‘I hate the city, I love the country and I love animals.’ ”
All animals, she added. A pet iguana. A crow on a fence post. Even a hundred cows in a field “send me into a total thrill.”
So in spring when husky pups are born to her 150-dog kennel, she holds each blind thing in her hands and breathes into its nose. That way, she says, the dog will associate her smell with comfort and encouragement. The rapport begins.
She feeds the dogs. She exercises and trains them. She massages them after runs. On a rotation basis, each dog sleeps in the cabin. The family forms.
Once, when a young Granite suffered renal failure from driving himself to dehydration, Butcher sat up for five nights with the dog’s head in her lap. Granite survived and remained a champion.
“But I don’t say I need to bond with these puppies early,” Butcher explains. “I want to bond with them.
“I’m not saying that if I don’t bond with this puppy I might not win the Iditarod, so therefore I have to go out and bond with this puppy. I’m going out because I’m absolutely drawn to that.”
She also will not ask more of her dogs than they can deliver, she says. The huskies know that. So, they often give more than they thought they had. And she is infinitely patient with the dogs.
“I want every one of these dogs to make my Iditarod team,” Butcher continued. “So I give everybody their sixth, seventh, and eighth or ninth chance. Whereas my competitors--and I think this is one of the biggest differences--often don’t give them a second or third chance.”
Granite was a loser. She once offered him for sale for $250. “He didn’t come around at least until his 10th chance. Sluggo was probably on his 20th chance before he came around.
“So you’ve got two superstars there who would not have even made it in someone else’s team.” And further, “every dog I run was raised in my own kennel by me and through my scheme . . . whereas often less than half of somebody else’s team is raised in their own kennel, and they buy the others.”
They buy from Butcher, paying from $1,000 to $10,000 for a trained dog. But even at that price, Butcher says, the animal is still one of her discards.
In the beginning, in Cambridge, Mass., in a family damaged by the death of her brother and eventually broken by divorce, Butcher said she relied more on animals than people. “I used to say as a kid: ‘My mother can die, my father can die and my sister can die. But if my dog died, I’d be very unhappy.”
She was 18, away from home and already racing huskies before that exclusion changed. It came to her as the end of a recurring dream about an Ice Age where there were no people, just Susan and her dogs.
“Then (in) one dream, the Ice Age melted and it turned out that certain people had lived,” she said. In the dream she wept because “my life with my dogs alone was over. So I went out on my last run before the last of the ice melted. And then I had to go back and spend time with people.
“It was then that I was ready to accept that people had a place in my life.”
Her childhood was filled with daring. During summers spent in Maine she raced 13-foot sailing dinghies when gales sent others heading for the dock. Her description of childhood is that she was “an individualist . . . hard core, big time tomboy . . . a real gambler who took dangers fairly lightly . . . and very lopsided academically, because I was a dyslexic who excelled at math.”
Her first dog, at 15, was Manganak, named for Zachary Manganak, a Canadian Eskimo in one of her children’s books. Then she bought a second husky. Her mother said two dogs in one house was too much.
“So I left the house rather than not get the dog,” Butcher remembered. “But happily so, and we maintained a wonderful relationship.”
She was 16 then. Butcher went to Nova Scotia and learned to farm and train horses and picked up enough carpentry to build a boathouse. She went to join her father in Boulder, Colo. Where her stepmother bought her a dog sled.
“We went to pick it up from a woman who had 50 huskies,” Butcher said. “Ten minutes later I had moved in. I lived with her for a couple of years, worked as a veterinary technician and mushed and was frustrated by every minute of it.”
She despised Colorado’s dropout drug culture, parents, as she saw them, living in the mountains and denying schooling to children as an artificial retreat to an imagined nature. “It didn’t have anything to do with nature . . . it had to do with being irresponsible.”
Butcher wanted the life of yesteryear. There must be a place, she reasoned, where human survival depended on instincts and dogs were not domestic pets but working animals “needed for transportation, to haul your water, to haul your wood.”
She eyed Western Canada. On her way, she paused in Fairbanks. “I felt at home the second I got there.”
Butcher worked at a musk ox farm, found a male companion and headed for her first winter in the lonely Wrangell Mountains before she had learned her partner’s last name.
“It was one of the purest places left in Alaska,” she recalled. “The closest road was 50 miles away. In Canada. We took in a sack of flour and a slab of bacon and a jar of peanut butter and lived off moose and caribou and ptarmigan and whatever we could hunt.
“I was a vegetarian when I went out there. I wasn’t a vegetarian when I came back.”
Butcher found “Utopia.” She also discovered life in its basic form. “If you were going to eat meat, you shot it. You saw its death. You caused its death and you ate it and you survived because of its death.
“And you hauled all your own water and everything was dependent on you and the reward was living in the most gorgeous spot on Earth.
“I found out after that second winter that I was totally rejuvenated,” she said. “I knew that if I could spend the majority of a year away from people, then I could actually adore human beings for about two months . . . even strangers.”
But only for a short while. “Then I’d fall off and it would be big time bad news. Get me out into the bush again. Susan is ready to flip out.”
In 1977, she moved to Eureka with two objectives: To form a kennel of at least 100 dogs and build a team to run the Iditarod. They were long, lonely years. She lived alone or with handlers when she could afford them. Debts grew. Equipment broke. One winter she survived by eating meat bought for the dogs.
But Butcher had goals, a stiff spine, a stubborn mind-set and an eye for any opportunity to focus attention on her and the dogs.
So in 1979, with Iditarod founder Joe Reddington, she took a dog team to the 20,320-foot summit of Mt. McKinley. It took 44 days. It also brought public interest to the earnest young woman with the braided hair who still believes: “I am not a pretty woman and so I became strong . . . I had to do something different.”
She trains her pups in harness at 4 1/2 months. Each one has been bred for essentials. Stamina. Resistance to injury. A sense of teamwork. Courage. Stoicism and flexibility of limbs.
Her aim is always to run behind the best dog team anyone ever hitched to a sled. Each dog must also have total communication with Butcher.
She deepens the telepathy by singing to the dogs when they are racing, old folk songs by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and maybe some Irish lullabies.
And in the worst moments of several Iditarods--when there were hallucinations from sleep deprivation--the dogs have saved her life.
In 1984, jockeying for the lead with two other teams, Butcher was told by race supervisors there was no overland trail between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik on Norton Sound, which pokes toward the Bering Sea. Crossing sea ice on a moonless night was the only choice.
“I noticed the ice was almost billowing,” she recalled. “Just as I saw that, I told Granite (in lead) to go to the left. Which he did. He was terrified because the whole thing (ice) was going like this (rocking) . . . when the sled fell through and the whole team and I went in about 30 feet of water.”
But then “Granite hit hard ice and he got up on top of it. Him and Maddie. Then, two (dogs) by two, they pulled us out. I thought we were goners.”
A moose once attacked the team and that cost Butcher the 1985 race, seven years of preparation, two dogs killed and 13 injured. Butcher has crossed Norton Sound in a blizzard when she couldn’t see the lead dog. Navigation was by a small compass. For five blind hours she traveled the ice, wondering how close she was to the spot where a friend drowned earlier in the year?
“But there’s a fun thing about it,” she said. She mentioned a quirk known to all adventurers. “It’s thrilling, isn’t it? Especially when you conquer it.”
There are activists who see sled dog racing as cruelty to animals.
Butcher snorts at the thought. It is an expression, she says, of uninformed city dwellers who know only pampered pets. Pulling sleds “is what they live for . . . it is instinctive for them to want to pull.
“From the time they see the harness come out or see the sled, they are absolutely going crazy, jumping around, wanting to go and then literally jumping into harness.”
There also are times when the adrenaline pumps and 12 dogs are galloping as one. Then, Butcher says, they don’t want to stop. There was the time a tired Butcher was racing in the Brooks Range and thought her weariness would be contagious.
“I felt these dogs would be fried or at least pick up on my feelings of being fried,” she said. “But I could not stop them. It was a total thrill. I hooked a five-inch diameter tree with my snow hook and they pulled the tree over. I tried stopping them for five or six miles and then gave up.
“So they went 35 miles into the next village.”
Such moments, she says, make Susan complete. The childhood inadequacies have gone. She no longer hunts for role models--because she has become the very person she was always searching for.
Yet is there still a call of the wild for Susan Butcher?
She thought long about that.
Outside the log cabin, Sluggo and Tolstoy and Co-Star and Hermit lie flat, with furry bellies toasting in the warm Arctic sun. Monson was playing a tape and porch speakers carried the Modern Mandolin Quartet over snow to thicket and silent hill. A gray jay snoozed in a tree.
“Oh, no,” Butcher whispered. “It’s still calling.”