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Mushers remember Butcher's grit, willpower

Helping the blind, defending dogs with an ax among Iditarod lore

Posted: Monday, August 07, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Mushers' tales of toughness, of outlasting furious snowstorms, of guiding dog teams down serpentine mountain switchbacks and over rivers of cracking ice are the meat and potatoes of Iditarod lore.

As any musher will tell you, Susan Butcher, rare winner of four Iditarods, did tough better than almost anyone.

Butcher died Saturday in Seattle of leukemia after a recent stem-cell transplant. She was 51.

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Butcher was diagnosed with acute myelogenous lymphoma in early December. Several years ago, she was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, a less aggressive cancer affecting the bone marrow that can lead to leukemia.

Throughout her illnesses, she drew on the potent mental strength that led to her domination in the late 1980s of the world's longest sled dog race, which stretches 1,152 miles from Anchorage to Nome.

"My whole life has been about challenge. I've had the odds against me in totally different ways and come through it," she told The Associated Press in December. "Now my goal is to try and stay alive and fight leukemia. No questions asked, that's what I am going to do."

Butcher, with lead dogs Granite and Mattie, won the 1986 race to become the second female champion. Her teams also arrived first under Nome's burled arch in 1987, '88 and '90 and finished in the top four through 1993.

Few mushers can boast of winning the 34-year-old race, and even fewer have won multiple times. Rick Swenson, who is still racing, holds the record for most Iditarod wins with five. Three others besides Butcher - Martin Buser, Doug Swingley and 2006 champion Jeff King - have four wins.

"I most remember her sheer will and determination to win against all odds," 1984 winner Dean Osmar said Sunday. "She went on to become one of the strongest competitors, man or woman. Once she started winning, it seemed almost hard for her to not be winning."

Osmar said one year his son, Tim, who helped legally blind musher Rachel Scdoris reach the finish this year, had to halt his team for a 1,500-pound male buffalo standing in the trail. He waited for 45 minutes, and then Butcher pulled up.

"He said she ran out with her red suit on and started waving her arms," Dean Osmar said. "The buffalo didn't like her or her hollering and decided to give up the trail. Timmy was pretty impressed."

Another well-known story tells of Butcher defending her dog team from a crazed moose using only her ax and parka during the 1985 Iditarod. The moose ended up stomping two of her dogs to death and injuring 13 before another musher shot it. Butcher, who withdrew, was leading when the moose attacked and many believe it cost her the championship. Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod that year.

Butcher's string of victories in the male-dominated race inspired a pithy T-shirt slogan: "Alaska: Where men are men and women win the Iditarod." No woman since Butcher has won, although this year's race featured four women in the top 20 of the 71 teams that finished.

"She was fun to race, but it was demoralizing for me. I was struggling up the ladder when she was at her most dominant," King said on Sunday. "I just kept thinking her dogs must be half robot, they were so spectacular."

Butcher completed 17 Iditarods before retiring in 1994, when she and husband David Monson decided to have children. They have two daughters, Tekla and Chisana.

After her retirement, Butcher would fly along the trail to chat with old opponents and visit the many friends she had in the Alaska Native villages that serve as checkpoints.

Though she was sick, this year was no exception. Butcher and her family were in the Yukon River town of Ruby chatting with exhausted mushers in the spruce log community center.

"She was so happy, and just the old Susan," King said. "Everything but her hair was there."

Butcher was born Dec. 26, 1954, in Cambridge, Mass. She came to Alaska at age 20 with the goal of racing sled dogs. Before meeting her husband, she lived alone in the Alaskan Bush for about a decade raising and training them.

Fellow mushers marveled at Butcher's encyclopedic mind and her ability to rally her superbly trained dogs. Osmar believes Butcher could have beaten him in 1984 had the race lasted another day.

"At Unalakleet (a town on the Bering Sea coast) I was 9 hours ahead and in that last couple days, she got 7 1/2 of that 9 hours back," Osmar said.

She also seemed to have an uncanny talent for handling sleep deprivation. While a dog team is resting, the musher only gets snatches of sleep between tasks such as ladling food to hungry huskies or rubbing ointment on their paws.

"She just never looked tired," King said "She always was energetic and a little more alive than the rest of us who were so exhausted."

Old-school competitors joke that the Iditarod was once considered a largely unrushed "camping trip" across Alaska. Some say Butcher helped bring the race to a new level of intensity.

"She's Alaska most famous athlete. She's the one who made the Iditarod," said Joe Runyan, who broke Butcher's three-year winning streak in 1989. "She raised the competition to a new level."



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