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Alaska mourns its iconic Iditarod champion
By CRAIG MEDRED
Anchorage Daily News

 

August 07, 2006
Monday


ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Far from her Alaska home and the dogs she loved so much, four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher died Saturday in a Seattle hospital, and a year-and-a-half battle with leukemia. She was 51 years old and the mother of two daughters, ages 10 and 5.

A child of the American upper middle class, Butcher turned her back on the civilized world of Cambridge, Mass., to carve out a niche for herself and her beloved dogs in a cold, difficult corner of Bush Alaska.

Through her 20s and into her 30s, she lived an almost cloistered existence in the Interior with her life dedicated to one seemingly impossible goal, winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. She spent days on end on the runners of a dog sled following huskies through the frozen taiga and barren wilderness north of Fairbanks.

She was then 27 years old and already an Iditarod contender, though it would still be five long and difficult years before the breakthrough Iditarod victory of 1986. By then, she had joined forces with Dave Monson, a one-time lawyer, a fellow dog musher and a soul mate.

Together, they would team to dominate the Iditarod. Butcher was the driving force behind their Trailbreaker Kennels and the face of the business. Monson was the organizer and administrator, the behind-the-scenes player who held everything together.

They were married in 1985, and Butcher won the first of her four Iditarods the next year. She would go on to win three more in the next four years - the most impressive string of victories in Iditarod history.

T-shirts soon proclaimed "Alaska: Where men are men and women win the Iditarod."

By the time Butcher decided to retire from mushing to start a family almost a decade later, her athletic achievements were so well known they had almost become synonymous with the 49th state.

Alaskans who engaged in conversations with strangers while traveling outside the state would often be met with the refrain, "Oh Alaska, isn't that where that woman always wins the dog sled race?" "That woman" was Butcher, and though she eventually bowed out of the Iditarod competition, she never went far away from the race.

She continued to breed, raise, train and sell sled dogs to other mushers, and she regularly assisted various news organizations as a color-commentator and analyst covering the race. Even this March, though weak from chemotherapy treatments, she gritted out a trip to the Bush village of Ruby to work as an Iditarod checker signing dog teams in and out.

It was classic behavior from a woman who did not know the meaning of the word quit.

She was possessed of an indomitable spirit, and it was that which has made it so hard for so many to comprehend that the cancer claimed her.

"I think everyone felt like Susan was such a fighter in the Iditarod that, well, of course Susan Butcher is going to beat this," said Mark Nordman, the Iditarod race marshal and a friend. "That's how everyone felt."

News of her death hit hard in Alaska, though it was not totally unexpected. Friend, fellow musher and cancer survivor DeeDee Jonrowe had gone to Seattle to see Butcher just weeks ago fearing it would be their last chance to talk. Others were well aware her condition was perilous.

Throughout her illness, Monson maintained a moving and forthright online journal to keep everyone up-to-date. It was often painfully honest about Butcher's condition as the cancer ravaged the body she once fought so hard to toughen.

In her competitive days, Butcher pushed herself harder than she ever pushed her dogs. There was never a musher more deserving of the honor of being considered "the toughest dog in the team." Everyone in and around the sport of long-distance mushing knew that.

"There are few still around that had the benefit of what we call 'The Butcher Years,' " said musher Martin Buser of Big Lake, himself a four-time champ. "She was certainly an inspiration to all of us. She was certainly one of the forerunners of having dedicated her life to the sled dog, and because of that she was victorious so many times."

Nordman was at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla on Saturday evening making calls around the world to notify others of Butcher's death. It was not an easy thing to do, nor headquarters an easy place to be.

"Of course, the first thing you see is Susan and Joe (Redington Sr.) climbing Denali and the champion pictures and everything," Nordman said. "It's just sad. It's a part of history that has left us."

The late Joe Redington, the father of the Iditarod, climbed Mount McKinley with Butcher, legendary guide Ray Genet and photographer Rob Stapleton in 1979. Genet later froze to death near the summit of Mount Everest. Cancer got Redington in 1997, and now Butcher.

Nordman said she will be seriously missed as one of the greatest ambassadors of sled dog sports. Even long after retiring, he said, she remained the one about whom visitors to Iditarod headquarters always asked.

"She's left a mark on the sport for sure," he said. "On dog care, there was no one finer.

"We knew she was on the biggest battle imaginable, but I think it came as a surprise to everyone that it came especially when it did."

 

Craig Medred can be reached at cmedred(at)adn.com
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com

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