For years, women and men around the world were drawn to the adventures of Butcher, a young woman struggling to win the classic (wo)man-against-nature race, pitting mushers against Alaska’s blizzards, wildlife, and frostbite.¹
-Carol M. Ostrom
Race Background: The Iditarod is a 1,152 mile dog-sled race across the beautiful and brutal Alaska wilderness. Competitors endure 100 mph skin-ripping winds, blinding blizzards, and temperatures reaching 70 below zero. Known as The Last Great Race, its duration is generally between 10-17 days.
Susan Butcher was born in Massachusetts in 1954. Her love of animals and the outdoors led her to study veterinary medicine and, at the age of 20, to follow her heart to the Alaskan wilderness. In 1978, she began training for the Iditarod with Joe Redington, the founder of the race, while living in a wall tent outside Knik. Starting out with only two dogs, Butcher took odd jobs during the short summer months to finance her training throughout the long winters. She competed in her first Iditarod in 1985, but was forced to withdraw early from the race when two of her dogs were killed and six injured by a rampaging moose. That year, Libby Riddles braved a severe storm to become the first woman to win the Iditarod.
Ignoring the setback, Butcher returned the next year to win the grueling race. Butcher won again in 1987, 1988, and 1990 (she finished 2nd in 1989). She was the first person to win three consecutive Iditarod Championships. Finishing a total of 16 Iditarod races, Butcher placed among the top five finishers twelve times and in the top ten all but once. No musher has ever so dominated the sport. Butcher officially retired from dog-sled racing in 1994 to raise her two daughters with fellow musher David Monson. The family raised and trained sled dogs at Trail Breakers Kennel near Fairbanks, Alaska.
After retiring, Susan Butcher was able to use her mushing fame to benefit both Alaskan and world-wide causes. Her success not only brought unprecedented attention to the race itself, but also to her unique training and treatment of race dogs. Butcher revolutionized the sport by making year-round dog care and training standard, rather than the exception. Even outside of dog-sled racing, Butcher was a change maker. As Alaska’s state chairperson for the Great American Smokeout she brought attention to the negative effects of tobacco products. Butcher also fiercely promoted awareness about fetal alcohol syndrome after becoming pregnant with her first child. Butcher was deeply involved with Special Olympics, acting as state chairperson and carrying the torch on her dog sled for the 2001 Winter Games in Anchorage. Her dedication to service inspired the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to establish the Susan Butcher Institute– a department focused on developing public service and leadership skills in young Alaskans.
Outside her racing career, Butcher set several additional world records. In 1979, she became the first person to summit Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak, with a dog team. In 1983, she conquered the peak a second time with the Seven Summit’s Expedition, the first group to climb the highest mountains on all seven continents. The Republic of Korea honored Butcher’s heroism for rescuing three fallen climbers on Mt. McKinley. Butcher was also inducted into both the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame and the Iditarod Hall of Fame, honored as a two-time Professional Sportswoman of the Year, and listed among 100 Greatest Athletes in the World by Sports Illustrated. In 2007, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin proclaimed March 3 as “Susan Butcher Day,” encouraging citizens to remember a remarkable Alaskan.
Susan Butcher passed away in 2006 after battling with acute leukemia for a year.
Susan Butcher is my shero because she followed her dreams. Growing up, adults always advise following your dreams, but they never tell you how terrifying it can be. In order to pursue her passion for sled-dog racing and breeding, Susan picked up and left her entire life behind- family, friends, professional contacts- and relocated to Alaska… ALASKA! As a recent college grad trying to find my place in the world, I’m constantly torn between following my dreams and playing it safe. My worries seem pointless when I consider what my parents, friends, and society would say if I were to announce my intention to become a professional dog musher! Susan Butcher’s accomplishments are a personal reminder to follow my dreams with abandon, regardless of obstacles- especially fear.
“Her life continues to inspire people to reach deep inside and achieve goals that otherwise would have been only dreams”²