The best dog team anyone ever hitched to a sled was the one Susan Butcher stood behind in the 1985 Iditarod, the 1,100-mile race across Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. So says Butcher, who knows a bit about sled dogs. "Those guys were athletes," she recalls with a wistful shake of her head, "and it all just came together. No one was going to beat them or come close to beating them." Then, two days into the race, which they were leading, she and her 17 athletes rounded a bend, and there in the trail was a cow moose the size of a backhoe. Butcher stopped the sled, and the moose, by rights, should have ambled off into the brush. Instead she charged and spent the next 20 minutes stomping Butcher and her dogs. Butcher had no rifle, and by the time the next musher arrived and shot the angry beast, one of Butcher's dogs was dead, another was dying, several more were injured, and Butcher herself was pretty thoroughly roughed up. Even at that, and with the two casualties loaded on the sled, her team beat all the other entrants to the next checkpoint, the village of Skwentna, 30 miles away.
There Butcher withdrew from the race, and Libby Riddles went on to become the first woman to win an Iditarod. But veterans from Butcher's superteam helped her win the 1986 and '87 Iditarods, and several of those dogs are likely to be in harness when she lines up as the short-odds favorite for the '88 race in March. Butcher's first prize last year was supposed to be $50,000, but the race promoters came up short and by August she had received only $15,000. (The rest of the cash finally dribbled in several weeks later, about the time the first snow was falling.)
Meanwhile, with the food bill for 160 adult huskies running at about $30,000 a year, Butcher and her husband, David Monson, were running out of cash. And their reefer (refrigerator) truck, loaded with several thousand pounds of meat for their dogs, had been broken for nearly a week. Plus, their radiophone wasn't working right, as usual.
Problems? No, just subsistence living in Eureka, Alaska, 130 miles west of Fairbanks. The population is six or so, not counting a few couples building cabins out in the bush who, says Butcher with a grin, probably won't make it through their first winter. Butcher and Monson had talked about his going off to make some money at the beginning of last summer. He is a lawyer who sometimes works as a public defender, and he had a lucrative offer. But, he says over the thud of a diesel generator with which he is tinkering, he has plenty to do here because he is also Eureka Power & Light, Eureka Sanitary and Eureka Blacksmithing & Hauling. Butcher handles the dog training, and most days Monson's odd-job artistry is required for 18 hours or so.
February 15, 1988
Summer is slow at the Butcher-Monson compound, because it's too hot, at 60° to 70° F, to run the dogs hard. Not running hard means four to six miles, three or four times a week (running hard means 20 miles or more, five times a week). There's no snow, so Butcher hitches the dogs, 12 at a time, to a Honda four-tracker and has them pull her through the boondocks against the drag of the engine in low gear. The dogs are Alaskan huskies—lean, medium-sized animals bred for speed and endurance, not for strength like the burlier, slower malamutes and Siberians. Butcher's dogs are amiable, family-style pooches who seldom fight among themselves and happily lick the hand of a stranger.
Each of her dogs has a personality and, of course, a name—Granite, Mattie, Stripe, and so on. Norman Thayer Jr. and Ethel are named after the elderly pair from On Golden Pond. Each dog gets a chance, every now and then, to roam free about the complex of log cabins and sheds, and to curl up like a house pet on the sheet-covered sofa in the main house. Except when it's the designated house pet, a dog lives in one of four dog villages, chained outside its individual plywood doghouse, but still able to socialize with its neighbors. For much of the time the dogs are quiet, and when they are, the buzz of a dragonfly can be heard. Then one husky or another, in one of the villages of 40 houses each, will be moved to howl. Others in the same encampment will join in, singing harmony. Soon, one by one, the other villages will be heard from, and for three or four minutes the air will ring with splendid craziness. Then, not quite all at once but within five seconds or so, the howling will stop. Insects will be heard again. The dogs will stay calm until Butcher and Monson begin selecting a team for a training run. Now, not howling but a commotion of yapping will be heard, each husky saying, "Me. me, take me!"
Butcher, 33, has an uptilted nose, a strong jaw and a glorious "Hello, there" grin. She is neither especially tall nor wide, but she is extraordinarily strong and gives the impression of being able to handle most situations. A visitor makes this sort of awkward catalog appraisal because one doesn't come across such a personage very often. She was raised in Cambridge, Mass., and there, in the same mysterious way in which some city girls know they love horses without ever having seen a live one, she became obsessed with huskies. An aunt gave her two Siberians. With these, at 18, she moved to Colorado. But the kind of mushing done there seemed pointless and artificial, and three years later she headed for Alaska.
In 1979, with Joe Reddington, who founded the Iditarod, Butcher took a dog team to the 20,320-foot summit of Denali (Alaskans' traditional name for Mount McKinley). It took 44 days. Her assessment is that dogsled racing is harder than peak climbing. In a race, a musher runs behind the sled, pushing, on all the uphill stretches, and for much of the rest of the route the driver pumps with one foot or the other. But sleep deprivation is the real killer. Every musher must take a 24-hour stop on the Iditarod. Most take it after Day 2 or 3, and a really efficient dog handler can manage eight hours of sleep then. After that, no stop is likely to take more than the four hours a day called for by the rules, and there's just enough time during one of these breaks to water (with melted snow) and feed the dogs, tend to their paws, mend harnesses, feed and mend yourself and then push on. In '86 Butcher set an Iditarod record of 11 days, 15 hours. Last year, even with a broken sled runner, she lowered that to 11 days, 2 hours.
When Butcher and Monson moved to Eureka a few years ago, the road from Fairbanks, now fairly good gravel, was not much better than a Jeep track. Although the logistics of bringing in food and getting to races forces them to live on what Alaskans call "the road system," they liked the feeling of isolation that a bad road gave them. Now everyone in Eureka and Manley, a town of about 100 residents 20 miles up the track, knows that if cabin fever strikes, Fairbanks is only a four-hour rattle away.
In the meantime, Butcher and Monson make their compromises with civilization and train for their races. Monson, who is as leathery as his wife and only a shade less determined, is a musher, too. Her career comes first, but, yes, he allows, he did come in second last year in the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile slog from White Horse to Fairbanks. "Yeah," Butcher yells, "tell what happened!"
So Monson admits that he was running third on the last day of the Yukon Quest with a fresh team and a good shot at winning. The first team crossed a frozen creek and cracked the ice. The second team crossed, and now the ice was weak. Monson's team broke through, and he and the dogs got soaked. "It was pretty cold," he says.
"Forty below," Butcher says.
"Fortunately it had warmed up from 60 below," says Monson. He threw himself into the snow and rolled around to get dry (snow is very dry in extremely cold temperatures and absorbs moisture), then chipped the ice off himself, got a gasoline stove out of the drenched sled and heated food for the dogs and a drink for himself. Then he and his dogs got back into the race. They finished eight minutes behind the winner.
During several hours of conversation, neither Butcher nor Monson had stopped working. Nor do they stop now, as a long Alaska summer afternoon winds down past 10 p.m. It is suppertime, but only for huskies, and as the visitor bumps down the dirt track to the main road, they begin stirring dog food in large tubs, with spades.