Susan Butcher, 51; Four-Time Winner of Iditarod Inspired Global Interest in the Race

Times Staff Writer

Susan Butcher, the musher who won the grueling Iditarod sled dog race four times and helped fuel worldwide interest in Alaska's annual competition, has died. She was 51.

Butcher died Saturday of leukemia at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. She had been diagnosed with the disease late last year. She underwent a stem cell transplant in May.

For five years starting in 1986, Butcher virtually owned the 1,150-mile-plus sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome. She won the event in 1986, '87, '88 and '90. She finished second in '89, just as she had in '82 and '84.

Running 17 races, she was the first woman to finish in the top 10, which she did on her third try in 1979. The only time she didn't finish at all was in 1985, when her dogs were attacked by a moose.

Butcher, who was leading the race, recalled the incident in an interview with The Times some years ago.

The moose "ran into the team, kicking and stomping and, within probably eight seconds, she had killed two dogs and injured 13 others," Butcher said. "I held her off with an ax for about 20 minutes, and then another musher came along and shot her."

Butcher got her injured huskies to a nearby veterinarian and lived there for two weeks until the last one was well enough to leave.

She labeled the incident "a freak accident."

Butcher seemed immune to other dangers of racing.

On one occasion, she crossed the desolate Norton Sound in a blizzard so intense she couldn't see the lead dog. She navigated the ice for five hours by using a small compass.

"But there's a fun about it," she said of the experience that many would see as harrowing. "It's thrilling, isn't it? Especially when you conquer it."

Reared in Massachusetts and Maine, Butcher was a tomboy who seldom shied from a challenge. In school, she excelled at math despite being dyslexic.

She left home by age 16 and moved to Nova Scotia to learn farming and horse training. She also picked up some carpentry skills and helped build a boathouse.

Wanting an authentic life in the wilds, she moved west to join her father in Boulder, Colo. She quickly found work as a veterinary technician for a woman who had 50 huskies. But she hated Colorado and what she saw as an irresponsible dropout drug culture.

Still longing for life in the wilderness, she found it in 1973 when she moved to Alaska's Wrangell Mountains. There was no running water, no electricity and almost no people.

"I just lived out there in the bush and basically taught myself how to mush for real and how to survive in the wilderness and what to do," she said.

Four years later, she moved to Eureka, about 300 miles north of Anchorage near the Yukon River, with the goal of starting a kennel and training a dog team to compete in the Iditarod. She eventually started Trail Breaker Kennels.

The Iditarod sled dog race was begun in 1973 as a memorial to a legendary event in Alaskan history. Nome was hit by a severe outbreak of diphtheria in 1925. A relay of dog teams covered 674 miles from Nenana to Nome carrying life-saving serum and saved the community.

Early Iditarod races had a carefree feel, with perhaps 20 to 25 participants; the winner made a few thousand dollars. This year's Iditarod had 83 contestants, and the winner, Jeff King, received $69,000 and a new Dodge truck.

Butcher joined the competition in 1978 and finished 19th, her poorest showing. She moved up to ninth place in 1979. Over the years, she set course records on a couple of occasions; her best time was in 1993, when she finished in 10 days, 22 hours and 10 minutes.

She was the second woman to compete in the race and the second to win. The first was Libby Riddles, who won the race in 1985. Butcher won the next three races, and by the late 1980s, a not-too-subtle T-shirt was a hot-selling item. It read: "Alaska: Where Men Are Men and Women Win the Iditarod."

At 5 feet 6 and 135 pounds, Butcher had to stay in top shape throughout the year to compete in sled races. She once said that she mushed, swam, skied, lifted weights or ran every day of the year.

So also faced her share of resentment from men who raced in relative obscurity until she started winning consistently, which attracted print and television media from the continental United States and around the world.

There were whispers that she fed her dogs performance-enhancing drugs.

But race officials said the random drug testing done on her dogs during the race always came up clean. She was also criticized by activists who saw sled dog racing as cruel to animals.

She scoffed at the notion, saying that it came from those who know only about pampering pets.

She maintained that for her dogs, 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."

Butcher retired from racing in 1994 at age 39 to raise a family with her husband, Dave Monson, a musher and former lawyer. They had two daughters, Tekla and Chisana, who survive her along with Monson. Butcher continued to breed and raise dogs and worked as a commentator for television stations covering the race.

Although in poor health for much of the year and weak from chemotherapy, she participated in the Iditarod in March, the Anchorage Daily News reported, working at a checkpoint signing dog teams in and out.

"I think everyone felt like Susan was such a fighter in the Iditarod that, well, of course Susan Butcher is going to beat this," Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman told the Anchorage paper.

"That's how everyone felt."

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