- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

Susan Butcher’s death in August seemed wrong on many levels. This was a woman who braved and conquered the wilds of Alaska to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race four times in five years, from 1986 to 1990, and it was hard to imagine her departing this world in a hospital bed because of leukemia at age 51.

Of course, none of us has control over such matters. When she was diagnosed with the disease in December 2005, her husband and racing partner, Dave Monson, quoted a friend who hailed her toughness by saying, “This disease hasn’t met Susan Butcher yet.”

How quickly time and tragedy overtake us. It was just 21 years ago this month that Butcher first achieved her goal of winning the Iditarod, a grueling event in which mushers and teams of dogs brave the elements to cover more than 1,000 miles in one to two weeks.

Butcher was the second woman to win, and she easily could have been the first. Before the 1985 race, a rampaging moose killed two of her dogs and injured six others, allowing the relatively unknown Libby Riddles to win.

But Susan got her revenge and how! By the time she completed her fourth victory run March 14, 1990, Butcher was a heroine in Alaska. Sirens, screams and banners greeted her arrival as she mushed into Nome an hour ahead of Joe Runyan, who had interrupted her string of three consecutive victories a year earlier. Along the way, she had to replace three of her dogs, including two leaders, who weren’t up to par. As matters turned out, it didn’t matter.

“I’ve never had a team go as strong as this,” said Butcher, giving the credit as usual to her canine companions. “I don’t know what’s in this team that could do it — it must be the combination working together. There’s been no strong dog to emerge from this group.”

Butcher is one of four mushers to win four times in the Iditarod’s 34 years, and Rick Swenson has done it five. But none of the others captured the public’s imagination as Susan did. All told, she finished among the top five 12 times before retiring in 1995 so she and Monson could start a family.

At the height of her success, Butcher was so well known that her name was virtually synonymous with that of the 49th state. When someone from the lower 48 met an Alaskan, he or she was likely to say, “Oh yes — isn’t that where that woman always wins the dogsled race?”

Oddly perhaps, Butcher grew up in civilized Cambridge, Mass., rather than somewhere in the Wild West. But after attending Colorado State and working as a veterinary technician, she moved to Alaska and began her campaign to win the Iditarod.

Probably no one on the outside can imagine how much courage and fortitude are required to survive, much less win, such a grind. Butcher pushed herself at least as hard as she pushed her dogs, spending countless practice hours on the runners of a sled while following her huskies through the barren wilderness north of Fairbanks.

“I have been known to walk in front of my team with snowshoes for 55 miles to lead them through a storm when I could have radioed a plane to come and get me,” Butcher once said. “I do not know the word ‘quit.’ ”

Obviously.

After retiring, Butcher remained close to dogsled racing as a breeder, trainer and occasional TV commentator. She and Monson had two daughters, Tekla and Chisana — both named after places in Susan’s beloved Alaska.

After being diagnosed with leukemia, Butcher appeared on the way to recovery following a bone marrow transplant. But her condition took a turn for the worse when the immune system from the donor began attacking her organs. When she died, the Iditarod posted a message on its Web site calling it “a very sad day for all Alaskans.”

Said race marshal Mark Norman, a personal friend: “I think everyone felt Susan was such a fighter in the Iditarod that [she] is going to beat this. But the Lord didn’t let it happen that way.”

And during this year’s Iditarod last week, Monson paid his own tribute. Traveling by dog team 700 miles from Manley, where the couple had lived, he scattered some of Susan’s ashes at a race stop called “Old Woman” between Kaltag and the Iditarod Trail.

“It was her favorite place on the trail — she always loved it,” he explained. “People always get a spiritual feeling going through there, a little shiver like someone is watching you.”

As if that weren’t poignant enough, daughter Tekla, 11, was driving a team of her mother’s eight favorite dogs and wearing the same suit her mother used to. So perhaps in one sense, this one was Susan Butcher’s Iditarod, too.


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