"Haw!" The command shattered the silence of the southern Alaskan bush.
It was midwinter 1977, and the nearest human being was some 50 miles away. Lead dog Tekla and 14 other huskies were pulling Susan Butcher on a sled across a frozen river when, suddenly, the leader disobeyed her musher's order to veer left, opting to head right—away from the trail. Butcher was annoyed and perplexed.
We were in the Wrangell Mountains on a trail we'd been traveling on all winter long. For no reason at all, Tekla kept trying to go off the trail. She had never done anything wrong before, and I couldn't understand why she was disobeying me. But I let her go. Then, just as we pulled to the side, the trail collapsed into the river. She had a sixth sense that saved our lives. That day I learned that the wilderness is their domain. The dogs know more about it than I do, and I'm better off trusting their instincts.
On a late-summer afternoon 13 years later, Butcher and about a dozen pups were standing on a glacier in Eureka Creek, 155 miles from Fairbanks and about a mile from her house. As she watched the waters swirl around them, one pup, Chomolungma, slipped on the slick block of ice and fell into the water. Butcher laughed with delight.
I was laughing and telling him how clumsy he was. But then I saw that he was being sucked under the glacier. I knew that if I dove in to rescue him, I probably would be sucked under, too. So it was a question of my life or his. But then the current turned for a moment and he came back toward me. I reached in and grabbed him. He was so happy when I pulled him out, he was jumping all over me and licking me. He knew I had saved his life.
Trust and loyalty. This symbiotic relationship between Butcher and her dogs is the biggest reason why, at the age of 36, she is considered the finest long-distance sled-dog racer ever and one of the greatest mushers of all time.
"Those dogs believe they can do anything because Susan believes they can," says Dee Dee Jonrowe, who's a friend of Butcher's and the winner of the 1989 500-mile-long John Beargrease race.
"Her animals respect her because they've gone through the mill with her," says Pam Redington, a sprint-dog kennel owner in Manley Hot Springs, Alaska, and Butcher's longtime friend.
In the 1,157-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which begins on March 2, Butcher will be the one to beat. For those who've lost count, she has won the race in four of the last five years, 1986, '87, '88 and '90, and she holds the Iditarod speed record of 11 days, 1 hour, 53 minutes and 23 seconds. At the beginning of this season, she held records in four other races: the Norton Sound 250, the Kobuk 220, the Kusko 300 and the Beargrease. The only other person to win four Iditarods is Rick Swenson, who prevailed in 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1982.
Butcher's success in this demanding and macho pursuit has made her a sports icon, not to mention a walking conglomerate. On this August afternoon in Eureka, the phone hasn't stopped ringing since she and her husband, David Monson, returned from a meeting they had with sponsors in Colorado 20 hours ago. Butcher is a week behind schedule for conditioning her dog teams. It is a predicament that she does not relish.
She has said that this year's Iditarod could possibly be her last. It may well be the hardest for her to win, too. Her competitors, particularly Swenson, aren't thrilled with the prospect of her becoming the first five-time Iditarod champ. Even more so than in years past, they will all be gunning for her. Meanwhile, life in the bush is more complicated than she would like it to be. Plopped among the four one-room log cabins and 120 doghouses at Butcher's Trail Breaker Kennels in Eureka are a white satellite dish and three unreliable diesel generators that power a telephone, a fax machine and a stereo system. Inside the cabin that serves as living room and kitchen, the electronic gadgets share close quarters with a wood stove, a sofa, a desk, a dining table and chairs.
Win or lose, Butcher has talked about retiring from racing this year and downsizing the communications station. The stereo will stay because Ray Charles, Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix and radio newscasters are welcome intruders. But Butcher intends to raise a family far away from telephones and fax machines. "Our life is getting to the point where there is too much going on for us to be able to do things exactly the way we want," Butcher says. "There are times when I'm just about to flip out and I tell David, 'This is crazy. I've won the race and done what I wanted to do, and I continue to be successful. So why is my life worse now that I have won?' "
This is Butcher's state of mind as she emerges from the doorless outhouse 10 yards east of the main cabin, zipping her fly. Butcher is a handsome woman who wears her hair in two waist-length braids, and whose fresh-scrubbed complexion and soft features belie the 16 years that she has spent fighting subzero temperatures and razor-sharp winds. Dressed in black dungarees, a cotton T-shirt and knee-high rubber boots, she heads from the outhouse to her dogs. They are her antidote for high-tech stress. Butcher's bond with the dogs is forged at the moment of their birth, when they slide from the womb into her cradled hands. Hers is the first human voice they hear, the first face they see. From that day on, she is their best friend.
Butcher warms to strangers slowly. At times she has a look that makes her seem cool and aloof, but around her friends, particularly those of the canine persuasion, she is gregarious and animated. She steps into the pen that houses about eight newborn pups, and her face beams with a childlike joy as she kneels on the straw-covered ground to cuddle each pup. Then she turns and praises Dobro, one of the mothers. "You did such a good job, I'm so proud of you," she says, sounding very much like a mom herself.
Like the 13 other citizens of Eureka, a mining and mushing enclave 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Butcher likes the quiet life among her dogs, which is far from the chaos and confinement of city living. Indoor plumbing isn't essential, and neither are paved roads. But she couldn't live without the creek that runs through her backyard or the rugged mountain ranges and fields of aspen, birch and spruce that surround her. Surveying her version of paradise, she says, "This is what I want in life, to live out here in the bush."
As Butcher strolls past the door of the kitchen cabin, where three of her four Iditarod championship plaques are displayed, a dozen 3-month-old pups gather at the fence of their pen, eagerly awaiting her arrival. She is barely inside the gate before they start milling around her legs and tugging at her jeans, imploring her to bend over and receive a mass face-licking. She obliges. "Yes, yes, I'm happy to see you, too," she says. She lingers to play with Chomolungma, the pup she rescued from the creek. "There's a special bond between me and this little guy," she says as she pats him. Then she heads over to a group of 50 older dogs chained to wooden posts beside their houses. They bark and howl as she approaches. The 20 strongest and smartest among this group will be the ones on this year's Iditarod team. She stops to chat with Rock and Heifer before moving on.
How does she remember the names of all 150 dogs? "It's easy when you know them," she says. "Like having 150 kids."
Butcher's unique training—she has worked as a veterinary technician and a midwife to musk-oxen—comes in handy. The nearest vets are three hours away, in Fairbanks, and they don't make house calls to the bush. So Butcher draws blood, takes urine samples, conducts physicals and administers vaccinations to all of her dogs. She has developed a keen eye for canine disease symptoms and treats minor ailments herself, even if it means sitting up all night with an ailing husky. "My training helped me with the practical stuff, but I had a sense of what dogs needed before I knew anything about mushing," she says.
Butcher rises at six o'clock in the morning to care for the dogs that are vying for spots on her race team. For the next 17 hours, she feeds them, fetches their water, plays with them, takes them on training runs and massages their sore muscles afterward. When she's at a race, away on one of her many speaking engagements or meeting with her sponsors, her three kennel assistants take over the feeding and watering. But only Butcher trains the top dogs. "When I'm mushing, or caring for the dogs or picking up after them, I am in total contentment," she says. "I have found something that was made for me." There are also strategic reasons for the time she spends with them. "I want the dogs to see me doing everything for them," she says. "They have to trust me and know that I care about them and that I won't ask them to do something they aren't capable of."
Butcher scours books about marathon running for new training ideas. She picks the brains of the champion athletes she meets at awards ceremonies and then uses herself as a guinea pig for new training techniques before trying them on her dogs. Butcher says she knows what her dogs are thinking by the way they bark and behave. But even she can't always tell when the training is too taxing for them. "They love it so much, they won't ever let you know they're too tired or they don't want to go on," she says.
Every evening before dinner in late summer and early fall, before there's enough snow for real mushing, she divides the dogs into teams of five or more for training runs. On this day, she and her assistants hitch the harnessed dogs to a gang line and hook it to a 350-pound all-terrain vehicle. Butcher hops in the driver's seat, puts the vehicle in fifth gear, and the dogs pull the 490-pound load for four miles, at an average speed of 15 mph. As the team trots down her muddy driveway, up and down steep hills and through creeks, she studies the dogs through yellow-tinted goggles that protect her eyes from the mud, water and dust the animals and the tires kick up. She notes which huskies trot like champions and which pairings work best. Like any coach, she cajoles, encourages and occasionally scolds her team.
Early in the run, the lead dog decides to take a breather in the creek, so the whole team stops. A perturbed Butcher crouches over the handlebars of the stalled vehicle and orders the dogs to get moving again. At the sound of her insistent All right! Go! command, they are off again. "The hard part is turning them into fine mental athletes willing to go the extra mile," she says as the team heads down a trail beside the one-lane road in front of her compound.
Butcher breeds each dog for speed and endurance, and as they grow, she tries to instill in them the same drive, desire and determination found in her own deep well of those traits. On strolls with her puppies, she watches to see which are willing to follow her anywhere—through mud, to the top of a glacier, to the edge of a cliff. Those are the athletes she wants on her team. She has also been known to go on solo runs or camp out with a dog who is having problems.
"The animal husbandry and breeding we do is hard work, but it's important," says 1989 Iditarod champ Joe Runyan. "Susan realized it early on."
Butcher's archrival, Swenson, acknowledges her skills. She is "real good as far as training her team goes," he says. Butcher and Swenson, whose houses are three miles apart, were once friends. He was a "bridesmaid" at Butcher and Monson's 1985 wedding, held in her dog yard in Eureka, and his wife, Cathy, baked the wedding cake. Now, neither Swenson nor Butcher will talk about when or why their friendship turned sour. But it seems to have started about the time Butcher began winning the Iditarod.
Despite his role as Butcher's bridesmaid, Swenson is a man's man. Rumor has it that he vowed to walk home if he was ever beaten by a woman in a sled-dog race, but Swenson denies having said it. Still, he took some grief from his male friends in 1985 after finishing the Iditarod in fourth place, behind Libby Riddles, who won the race and became the first female Iditarod champion. Every year since then, he has come in behind Butcher in the race.
Over the years, Swenson has offered an array of reasons to discount Butcher's accomplishments. And as she got closer to equaling his record, his excuses for losing took on an air of exasperation. He griped that she had no real ability, only a strong lead dog, a husky named Granite. Late in the 1987 race, after it was clear that Butcher would win her second Iditarod with Granite leading her team, Swenson was livid. "When she loses that lead dog, she'll realize she's not as good as she thinks she is," he said, practically spitting the words. (For the record: In winning the Iditarod last year, Butcher's team ran just the first 200 miles with Granite, who was dropped from the team after tearing a toenail.) Butcher says Swenson once accused her of using witchcraft and mind control on her dogs. He won't comment on that, or say much else about her methods now. "I don't want any part of a story written about her that I'm involved in to be negative," Swenson says. "Every time I get interviewed about her, I wind up looking like a jerk."
Joe Redington Sr., Pam's father-in-law, has known Butcher and Swenson for years. "Rick's not overly fond of Susan, and I don't know whether he ever was," Redington says.
Swenson recently advocated a handicapping system for the Iditarod that would allow mushers who weigh more to run with more dogs than mushers who weigh less. Under such a system, Swenson, who is 6'4", 190 pounds, would start with, say, 20 dogs. A smaller musher, like the 5'6", 140-pound Butcher, would be allowed something like 14 or 16. Currently, mushers of all shapes and sizes start with at least seven and no more than 20 dogs. They are not allowed to add or switch dogs after the start, but they can drop dogs from the team at checkpoints when strategy or a dog's health warrants it. Swenson claims lighter racers have an unfair advantage because their dogs have less weight to pull and consequently don't have to work as hard as dogs pulling a heavier musher. But Jonrowe, who weighs 125 pounds, and Runyan, 175, say the strategic decisions a musher makes during the race are far more crucial to the outcome than the weight a team is pulling. Moreover, Jonrowe says, whatever advantage a smaller musher may have vanishes when the musher has to maneuver the sled—which weighs as much as 200 pounds when it's full of gear and dog food—up an icy sidehill or around a tree. Last summer, mushers rejected the handicapping proposal by a vote of 40-21.
Butcher abhors the brouhaha over male-female differences, especially when people use them to denigrate her accomplishments. "As long as I wasn't a factor, it was O.K. that I was breaking trails in an area where they didn't want women," she says. "But when I started to get good, there was a lot of resentment."
Jonrowe, however, believes the sniping has more to do with Butcher's success than with her sex. "Every one of the serious competitors believes the person on top doesn't deserve to be there," Jonrowe says. "I'm not sure being a woman has anything to do with it."
One thing is certain: The Iditarod is no place for wimps of either gender. The race is named for the trail that mushers used in the early 1900s to take gold out of, and to bring mail and supplies into, Iditarod and other now-deserted mining towns. The race always begins in Anchorage the first weekend in March and ends approximately two weeks and 1,100 miles later, in Nome. (In 1925, 19 mushers used 674 miles of the trail to relay diphtheria serum from Nenana to Nome, where an epidemic raged.) Mushers gather two nights before the race to draw times for the staggered-start event, which takes them over jagged mountain ranges, across frozen rivers, through dense forests, along desolate tundra, into ghost towns and beside miles of windswept coast. It is an isolating experience requiring unshakable determination and confidence.
With more than half the race still ahead of them, the mushers enter the bleak and treacherous Farewell Burn, a 40-mile black spruce forest blighted by a 1977 fire. Racers often hit the Burn at night and must find their way through an obstacle course of trenches, water holes and burned tree stumps with only their headlamps and lead dogs to guide them.
The conditions can be bitter, but Butcher is used to them. An hour into the 1982 race, her sled crashed into a tree, bruising her and injuring four of her 15 dogs. Eight hours later, a violent snowstorm wiped out the trail, and Butcher, trying to find her way through the wind and cold, veered 10 miles off course. Several days later, stranded for 52 hours by an eyelash-freezing storm at the Shaktoolik checkpoint near the Norton Sound, she chopped firewood in 80-mph winds amid 30-foot snowdrifts. That year, she finished second. In the 1985 Iditarod, she held off a pregnant moose for 20 minutes one night, waving and poking an ax as the starving animal kicked and stomped her team. Fortunately, Dewey Halverson, another competitor, came along and shot the irate moose, but not before it had killed two dogs, injured 13 others and bruised Butcher's shoulder. She dropped out of the race at that point.
Because of sleep deprivation, Butcher has been known to hallucinate during the race about trees that aren't there, among other things. But the psych-out ploys other mushers try don't rattle her. Halverson and Jerry Austin decided to run their teams together at the start of the 1987 race, apparently figuring two heads were better at concocting a winning strategy than one. They also thought that having two teams racing together would spur the dogs to run faster. Their idea was to build a lead that no one would be able to overcome and to sucker those who tried into overtaxing their teams. Uppermost in their minds was Butcher, whose dogs typically kick about 25 miles from the finish. Said Halverson, "I don't want to be sprinting to Nome against her." Butcher ignored them, and as the tandem's teams lost steam, hers grew stronger. When it became clear their strategy had failed and that the race had come down to Butcher and Swenson, it was Austin who said snidely, "Rick better be fast, or they'll be saying 'Come to Alaska—where men are men and women are men.' "
Butcher has always been fiercely independent. Her father, Charlie, remembers seeing the signs early: "She was always a very determined child. There wasn't much chance of Susan's being pushed around. She and her sister, Kate, were strong-willed. They'd both leave home and stay away for long periods of time whenever they felt like it. But I loved that determination and independence. They're great things to have."
Susan was drawn to the wilderness even back then, writing grammar school essays about hating cities and loving the country. But Susan does recall some happy moments in Cambridge, Mass., where she grew up. "The exciting days would be when Mother Nature somehow made herself known," she says. "If we had a horrible rainstorm or snowstorm or lightning or thunder, I loved it. I'd spend the whole time outside running around in it."
Heredity and environment. Charlie, chairman of his family's chemical-products company, and Agnes, a psychiatric social worker, were progressive thinkers and permissive parents to Susan and Kate, who is a year older. (Susan also had an older brother, Evan, who died of leukemia in 1953, at age 3½.) Charlie, who loved sailing and carpentry, didn't subscribe to the notion that there were some things girls just didn't do. He taught his daughters to sail and bought them each a set of adult carpentry tools before they were teenagers. The three of them spent a couple of years trying to restore an old sailboat hull he had bought for $25. They never made it seaworthy, but the girls eagerly shared their father's passion.
At 16, Susan applied to a boat-building school in Maine but was rejected, she says, because of her gender. "A lot of people said I should have sued," she says. "But that would have been a lose-lose situation for everyone, because they wouldn't have wanted me there and I would have felt uncomfortable. I decided to learn it elsewhere and do it better than they ever thought it could be done."
The Butcher brand of independence and intensity that serves Susan so well in long-distance sled-dog racing has often made her a difficult person to work for—and with. Counselors at a summer work camp praised young Susan's diligence, but fellow campers, whom she said "lolly-gagged around and leaned on their shovels," disliked her. It was the same story years later when she worked summers at an Alaskan salmon factory in the Eskimo village of Emmonak, at the mouth of the Yukon River. Some coworkers resented her for making them look bad by decapitating fish at a breakneck clip.
"I thought the other people were lazy," says Butcher as she looks out of the window of the main cabin at one of the three cabins she has thrown together during the 11 years she has lived in Eureka. The cabin she is in, which has a wood stove and a telephone, was a blacksmith's shop during the gold rush in the early 1900s. Butcher built the others—a guest cabin, a cabin for the handlers and a cabin she and Monson sleep in—primarily by herself. She also built the frame structure that serves as headquarters for Trail Breaker Kennels. In her spare time she fed the dogs, hauled water from the creek, and hunted and trapped moose, caribou and sheep for supper. "I don't like to talk, I like to work," she says.
"Some would say Susan's a tough boss," says 18-year-old Tonya Schlentner, one of Butcher's assistants. "But she expects more of herself than she does from any of us." Schlentner, a tomboyish strawberry blonde, is tonight's chef at the kennel. Schlentner keeps one eye on the vat of dog chow she's mixing with water and the other eye on the dogs' main course—beef and commercial dog food in its own gravy—stewing in a pot in a nearby galvanized-tin hut. "Anyway," Schlentner says, "I think it's good to expect a lot out of yourself."
Agnes and Charlie Butcher once thought their younger daughter might become a country veterinarian. "Susan is more comfortable with animals than she is with most people," says her father, repeating an often-repeated refrain. "Animals are more emotionally honest. She loves that quality in them."
At age eight, after writing an essay for school titled "I Hate the City," Butcher wanted to tear down her parents' home near Radcliffe College and build—you guessed it—a tiny log cabin. She thought there should be more room for grass. Summers spent at the family's house on Eggemoggin Reach, in Brooklin, Maine, delighted Susan, who frolicked there, amid grass, trees, sand and surf, with Ca-bee, the family mutt. "I needed that space and freedom," she says. "I wasn't a child who was very needy of other people, and I liked my time alone."
Because of a mild case of dyslexia, diagnosed in junior high school, Susan struggled through English classes and received almost constant tutoring in that subject. The dyslexia still occasionally affects her. When she gets tired during a race, she says, it takes a little longer to do the simple math required to calculate how big a lead she has or how far she's behind. So, though she loved animals, got A's and B's in science, and studied college-level math during her years at Warehouse Cooperative School near Cambridge, a college pre-vet curriculum was more than she wanted to deal with.
Besides, she was more interested in her high school class's rowing expeditions in Boston Harbor and in her first husky, Maganak. She and Kate, who is an expert sailor and a professional carpenter in Blue Hill, Maine, were determined teens who left home for good after high school. At 17, Susan headed to Boulder, Colo., to be with animals and build houses, boats or whatever she could. Agnes, who celebrated her 70th birthday in Bedford, Mass., last August, wasn't always elated with Susan's decisions, but she took a social worker's view of her daughter's strong will. "I believe in letting a child become what he is, instead of imposing on him what you believe he should be," she says.
Agnes's instincts were right. Susan's burning desire was to live with animals in the wilderness, but the time she spent in Boulder helped her formulate the plans that led her to Alaska. In Boulder she met a woman who bred and raced sled dogs and a veterinarian who hired her as his assistant. And while poring over a mushing magazine one day in 1973, she read about the inaugural running of the Iditarod. She decided that that was what she wanted to do. Two years later, Butcher and her two cats were on their way to Fairbanks, where she planned to work on a University of Alaska project to save endangered musk-oxen, and to practice dog mushing. Within four months, she had bought three dogs—including Tekla, who died last August at 15½. She packed up the dogs and cats, along with a sack of flour, a giant slab of bacon and an economy-sized jar of peanut butter, and trekked into the southern Alaskan bush, in the Wrangell Mountains. There, she lived in a small log cabin, chopped firewood, hauled water from a creek, hunted meals in the woods and mushed her dogs. For two years she lived in virtual isolation, venturing to Fairbanks during the summers, where she earned $600 working as a midwife on the musk-ox farm. In 1977 she followed the musk-ox project west to Unalakleet.
That's where she met Joe Redington St., who had an exceptional kennel. Butcher was broke and in need of two dogs to complete her team for the 1978 Iditarod. So she agreed to train young dogs for Redington, in exchange for two huskies and a tent in the woods at his kennel in Knik, a village 18 miles north of Anchorage. Over the years, Redington has bred many of his dogs with Butcher's and with those of other mushers. The result of one such cross was Granite, with whom she won the Iditarod in 1986, '87 and '88.
Redington, a 74-year-old Oklahoma native who never finished the sixth grade, is a legend in Alaska, having logged more than 160,000 miles across the state with his sled-dog team, often rescuing survivors from wrecked bush planes. In 1948, he first saw the Iditarod Trail, fell in love with it and set about organizing the contest known as The Last Great Race on Earth. As soon as Redington saw how hard Butcher worked, he knew she would someday be an Iditarod champion. "No matter what she's doing, it doesn't take long before she can do it as good as, or better than, anybody else," he says.
In 1977, Redington convinced two Anchorage television stations to film a swim-suit-clad Butcher bathing in a frozen lake. The news peg, presumably, was how a future Iditarod winner stays clean. "I just chopped a hole in the ice the way I always did and jumped in, and they filmed it," Butcher says, laughing at the memory. "It worked. The publicity helped me get my first sponsor." She entered the 1978 Iditarod and finished 19th.
Butcher shared some great adventures with Redington during the two years she spent with him and his family. For fun, they assembled a team of dogs after the 1979 race and spent 40 days climbing to the top of Denali, the native Alaskan name for Mount McKinley, becoming the first people to mush to the summit.
Redington, who represents mushing's old guard, made a stir when he told reporters that his swimsuited protègèe would someday win the Iditarod. He may ruffle feathers again if he pursues his plan to nominate Butcher to the largely male Dos Mushers' Hall of Fame, in Knik. Redington, who still races despite a substantial hearing loss, couldn't care less if there's a fuss. "She deserves it," he says.
Runyon says Butchers ability to attract corporate sponsors and her intense preparation before each race have "taken the sport to another plateau." Monson has helped her carry it there. The scholarly looking 38-year-old lawyer and champion dog musher (he won the 1988 Yukon Quest and placed fifth in the 1982 Iditarod) attended college in Colorado, Minnesota and Heidelberg, Germany, and earned a law degree at the University of South Dakota before journeying to Alaska in 1976 to live "unbound by convention." He has been a business partner as well as boyfriend and then husband to Butcher since 1982.
Talk about power couples. In the main cabin in Eureka, Monson sits at a desk piled high with papers. He faxes contracts to Ralston-Purina, a company which sponsors his wife and feeds their dogs, and talks by telephone to another sponsor about transporting dog food to races. Across the yard, in the kennel office, Butcher examines the huskies' health records and plans training schedules for her teams. "Running a kennel is big business," says Monson, who also sits on the board of directors for the Iditarod. "Racing as much as we do—approximately 3,000 miles or about six races a year, which is twice as much as anybody else—there are a lot of logistics to think about. One person can't do it all."
Before becoming Butcher's husband, Monson was among her many creditors. As she was preparing to leave Redington's kennel and move to Eureka in 1980, Monson came by, hawking seafood byproducts as dog food on behalf of a native Alaskan corporation. Butcher thought she had a $15.000 sponsorship deal lined up and charged the $6,000 worth of dog food she bought from Monson to her supposed sponsor. But the sponsor backed out and left her holding the bill. That summer, she slept either in her yellow Volkswagen Beetle or at a friend's apartment while working as a supervisor at an Anchorage fish factory. On her days off, she knocked on doors all over town, looking for sponsors. She collected a lot of T-shirts and a few $50 contributions during those three months, but she didn't raise enough money to cover her racing expenses for the year, much less make a dent in her stack of bills. Over the next two years she paid Monson back in $10 and $25 increments. He was charmed. "I had a host of delinquent customers, and her conscientiousness was inspiring," he says. By 1982 they were dating and spending time together during extended visits, although they were living 600 miles apart.
After the 1982 race, the couple decided to prepare for the 1983 race full time. They figured the extra training time would improve Butcher's chances of winning. If she won, they reasoned, she would attract new sponsors, and the money would make up for the lost summer income. But the gamble didn't pay off. Butcher followed a mismarked trail, got lost for 12 hours and finished ninth. Monson had to take a job as a public defender in Kotzebue for a year to bring in money.
Since their marriage in 1985, Butcher has gone four for five in the Iditarod. As a wedding gift, Charlie gave Susan and David a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which sits on a bookshelf in the main cabin. Monson jokes that the encyclopedia helps them settle disputes during the long Alaskan winters. Charlie figures they don't need the set very often for that. "Susan and David are made for each other," he says.
Monson gets the credit as well as the blame for the presence, around the kennel, of the electronic links to the outside world. Still, Butcher acknowledges that they have come in handy. Faxes and telephones on the premises mean no more driving 30 miles to the pay phone in Manley Hot Springs, then spending the day talking to answering machines on the East and West coasts while trying to line up race sponsors.
Butcher's other link to the outside, Bob Woolf—a Boston agent who handles, among others, New Kids on the Block and Larry Bird—has made her well known throughout the U.S. She has appeared on The Tonight Show, Today and Good Morning America. She is also a two-time Women's Sports Foundation Professional Sportswoman of the Year. Butcher, Monson and Granite dealt with a different kind of Bush when they all met the President at the White House last April. Her 45-day summer travel schedule, during which she crisscrosses the Lower 48—signing autographs at sporting-goods trade shows, sitting for photo and interview sessions, meeting with sponsors and giving speeches at seminars and conventions—allows her to sample and bring back to Eureka such luxuries as La Croix water and Korean pickled cabbage. Butcher has even developed a taste for the Big Apple. "It's my favorite place to visit—not over any country place, mind you, but among the cities," she says. "You have freedom there to do anything you want at any time of day, just like in the bush." She visits New York City once or twice a year.
Monson claims that the kennel—where expenses for dog care average about $150 per day, plus a little more for upkeep on the sleds, trucks, all-terrain vehicles, chain saws and generators—barely breaks even each year. He won't talk specifics, but he says it costs more than $130,000 a year to run the racing and kennel operations. Butcher won four of the six races she entered last year and collected about $80,000, including $50,000 for the Iditarod. The kennel made another $30,000 from dog sales (at prices ranging from $500 to $5,000 each). Add some sponsors' money—Monson won't disclose how much—from Ralston-Purina, an outerwear company, a telecommunications group and a hotel chain, and you have their total income. After paying the bills there isn't much left over.
Butcher gets testy during long hotel stays and starts to fidget after a few days of speeches, meetings and interviews. In the past, Monson could pacify her by reminding her that it added up to only a month or so away from home. But now she has decided that it's time to become less accessible. The plan is for the fax machine, telephones, answering device and satellite dish to be moved to a small office in Fairbanks, which Monson would visit once or twice a week on the bush plane they plan to buy.
With those intrusions out of the way, and with perhaps a fifth Iditarod plaque, the couple hopes to live happily ever after—having babies, building an animal research center and just gazing at the landscape. Butcher also wants to compete in some long-distance races the Soviet government is organizing and she would like to enter some shorter races in Alaska. "I'm preparing for my 14th Iditarod," Butcher says. "That's a lot of years of total dedication and training. Now, I want to take some time and enjoy the area I live in."
For Susan Butcher, happiness is not having to run out of the outhouse to answer the phone.