Call Of The Wild -- Champion Musher Susan Butcher Doggedy Pursues Racing Goals
EUREKA, Alaska - It was a moment of warmth in a chilly, unyielding land.
Twelve dozen Alaskan huskies yelped, growled, yipped and howled from their hutches on thawing muskeg and stretched wet paws toward Susan Butcher.
Butcher returned the adoration. She chanted.
``Bugga, bugga, buggabeen . . . the fastest dog there's ever been.'' Her song was for Sluggo, a honey beige husky with a sore paw. It was raw from ice balls that formed between his toes in March when he was leading Butcher's team to victory in an 11-day streak of masochism known as the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. It was Sluggo's first win. It was Susan Butcher's fourth.
``Dugadee. Dugadoo. Dugadog.'' That call was for Granite. He has won three Iditarods and, says Butcher, is the finest sled dog of this decade. If Granite were a horse he'd be Secretariat.
Then this child-woman crouched deep among her dogs and the Spring-softened snow and wrapped arms around Elan's shaggy neck; flopped on her belly on a plywood doghouse to say boo to Tolstoy; and wrinkled her nose against the wet black plug of Heifer's nose.
And Susan Butcher - emotionally stale from airlines and motels and real clothes, mentally exhausted by 10 days of victory greetings, public speaking and a meeting with President Bush - finally was home.
Home. That's Trail Breaker Kennel, five acres of bush surrounding an 80-year-old log cabin that once belonged to a Gold Rush blacksmith. It is most of Eureka (elev. 270, pop. 6). Just a scatter of mining shacks among stands of silver birch at the end of 140 miles of dirt road not far beneath the Arctic Circle.
Hers is life without television, running water, flush toilets or a bathtub. There's a single telephone hooked by satellite to a Seattle area code, but that's for husband Dave Monson to use because Butcher regards a ringing phone as the ultimate intrusion and refuses to answer it. A run to the grocery store is a four-hour rattle by truck to Fairbanks.
Only in isolation approaching privation, Butcher says, can she maintain an uninterrupted focus on breeding and training sled dogs. Only away from the noise, stink and structures of man can she intensify a unique personal bonding with her dogs. Only from here can she concentrate on winning next year's Iditarod.
For a decade, she explains, she has concentrated on a companionship that starts with a puppy's first breath and produces dogs ready to drop for her - huskies that have made her not just the best woman dog sled racer in the world, but the best dog sled racer in the world.
Some frustrated mushers have suggested that a separate Iditarod race be staged: one for men. In sour recognition of her fixation on winning, blind stubbornness to the point of impoliteness on the trail, and an easy acceptance of huge risks that repel mere males, she has been given a nickname: Ayatollah Butcher.
-- In any endurance athlete's life the Iditarod stands as a death wish - a lopsided gamble against survival across 1,130 frostbitten miles, mountain ranges, blizzards, and frozen seas between Anchorage and Nome. Only two people have won the Iditarod four times - Rick Swenson, 38, of Two Rivers, Alaska, and Susan Butcher, 35.
-- The race record is 11 days, one hour and 53 minutes. It belongs to Butcher. Her fifth Iditarod championship, said Joe Reddington Jr., a racer and son of the 1972 founder of the Iditarod, may be considered an inevitability. If anyone can break the 10-day barrier, believe other experts, Susan Butcher will.
-- In the past winter's schedule of sled dog races - marked by such contests as the John Beargrease Marathon and the Coldfoot Classic - Butcher entered six events. She won four and was second in the others.
``What was the total frustration for the mushers is that Susan took three totally separate teams (to the races),'' Butcher said. In conversation she often inserts herself within the narrative. ``Both Susan's A and B dogs blew away the other teams and took 10 hours off the record in the Beargrease.''
Resentment has been raised against Butcher by veterans who raced in obscurity for years because nobody cared much about the Iditarod - until a woman won. Then came reporters from Sports Illustrated and ABC World Wide of Sports and Australia and Japan.
Said former champion Swenson: ``She's a good competitor but that's all I can say.'' Then he said more: ``You could ask yourself what have they (Butcher and Monson) done for anyone else in the sport? They just take, take, take.''
Because her trademark finish has always been a sprint - even after 11-days of the punishment of the Iditarod - there are whispers that Butcher feeds drugs to her dogs.
``Her teams go so fast at the end of the race,'' said Robin Jacobson of Squaw Lake, Minn., who finished 6th in this year's Iditarod. ``I can't understand a dog having a three or four-day adrenaline rush. It would kill them. So that's where . . . there is doubt in a lot of minds.''
Monson - a lawyer and public defender among many former trades - finds all such suggestions slanderous. Racer Reddington thinks the accusation should be shovelled aside with caribou droppings. But most important, Jack Morris of Wasilla, Alaska, veterinary director of this year's Iditarod, said there was routine urine testing - en route and at the finish - of several dogs on Butcher's winning team.
``All samples were clean,'' Morris said. ``If there was any kind of cheating, we'd catch it.''
Butcher, a woman of uncluttered beliefs, sees another root of the resentment: Male frailty.
``I have become a symbol to women across the country - and internationally in fact - and I'm not going to say that there wasn't a lot of strength gained by that thought and by the support (from women) that I got,'' she said. She's sitting cross-legged in a deep armchair in the log cabin and Meaty, a 17-year-old Siamese, is asleep in her lap. ``The Eskimo women, the Indian women literally giving me the physical support of saying as I came through the villages: `Do this for us.'
``It is an amazing feeling to have an Eskimo woman who has had a totally different upbringing from myself, who lives a very traditional life, male-femalewise, to look to you to win a race to give her a moral boost.''
Most competitors also don't recognize the spiritual link Butcher says she has with her huskies.
In fact, Butcher says, maybe only husband Dave and Trail Breaker's teen-aged dog handlers, Tanya Schlentner and Jennie Tschappet, the group she calls ``the sacred few,'' fully understand.
But to them the flair is clear: Susan Butcher is to Alaskan huskies what Dian Fossey was to gorillas.
``I was born with a particular ability with animals and a particular love for them,'' she said. ``An animal loves you and you love them. I needed that as a child.
``I have some compositions here, some of those one-liners you write in the first grade. Mine said: `I hate the city, I love the country and I love animals.' ''
So in spring when husky pups are born to her 150-dog kennel, she holds each blind thing in her hands and breathes into its nose. That way, she says, the dog will associate her smell with comfort and encouragement. The rapport begins.
SHE feeds the dogs. SHE exercises and trains them. SHE massages them after runs. On a rotation basis, each dog is allowed to sleep in the cabin. The family forms.
Once, when a young Granite suffered renal failure from driving himself to dehydration, Butcher sat up for five nights with the dog's head in her lap. Granite survived and remained a champion.
She will not ask more of her dogs than they can deliver, she says. The huskies know that. So, they often give more than they thought they had.
She is infinitely patient with the dogs.
``I want every one of these dogs to make my Iditarod team,'' Butcher said. ``I give everybody their sixth, seventh, and eighth or ninth chance. My competitors often don't give them a second or third chance.''
Granite was a loser. She once offered him for sale for $250. ``He didn't come around at least until his 10th chance. Sluggo was probably on his 20th chance before he came around.
``So you've got two superstars there who would not have even made it in someone else's team.'' And further, ``every dog I run was raised in my own kennel by me and through my scheme''
Other mushers buy from Butcher, paying anywhere between $1,000 to $10,000 for a trained dog. But even at that price, Butcher says, the animal is still one of her discards.
She trains her pups in harness at 4 1/2 months. Each one has been bred for essentials. Stamina. Resistance to injury. A sense of teamwork. Courage. Stoicism and flexibility of limbs.
Her aim is always to run behind the best dog team anyone ever hitched to a sled. Each dog must also have total communication with Butcher.
She deepens the telepathy by singing to the dogs when they are racing, old folk songs from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and maybe some Irish lullabies.
And in the worst moments of several Iditarods - when there were hallucinations from sleep deprivation - the dogs have saved her life.
In 1984, jockeying for the lead with two other teams, Butcher was told by race supervisors there was no overland trail between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik on Norton Sound which pokes toward the Bering Sea. Crossing sea ice on a moonless night was the only choice.
``I noticed the ice was almost billowing,'' she remembered. ``Just as I saw that, I told Granite (in lead) to go to the left. Which he did. He was terrified because the whole thing (ice) was going like this (rocking) . . . when the sled fell through and the whole team and I went in about 30 feet of water.''
But then ``Granite hit hard ice and he got up on top of it. Him and Maddie. Then, two (dogs) by two, they pulled us out. I thought we were goners.''
A moose once attacked the team and that cost Butcher the 1985 race, seven years of preparation, two dogs killed and 13 injured. Butcher has crossed Norton Sound in a blizzard when she couldn't see the lead dog. Navigation was by a small compass. For five blind hours she travelled the ice wondering how close was she coming to the spot where a friend drowned earlier in the year?
``But there's a fun thing about it,'' she said. She mentioned a quirk known to all adventurers. ``It's thrilling, isn't it? Especially when you conquer it.''
Some activists see sled-dog racing as cruelty to animals.
Butcher snorts at the thought. It is an expression, she says, of uninformed city dwellers who know only pampered pets.
Pulling sleds ``is what they live for . . . it is instinctive for them to want to pull.
``From the time they see the harness come out or see the sled, they are absolutely going crazy, jumping around, wanting to go and then literally jumping into harness.''
There also are times when the adrenaline pumps and 12 dogs are galloping as one. Then, Butcher says, they don't want to stop. There was the time a tired Butcher was racing in the Brooks Range and thought her weariness would be contagious.
``I felt these dogs would be fried or at least pick up on my feelings of being fried,'' she said. ``But I could not stop them. It was a total thrill. I hooked a 5-inch diameter tree with my snow hook and they pulled the tree over. I tried stopping them for five or six miles and then gave up.
``So they went 35 miles into the next village.''
Such moments, she says, makes Susan complete. The childhood inadequacies have gone. She no longer hunts for role models - because she has become the very person she was always searching for.
Yet is there still a call of the wild for Susan Butcher?
She thought long about that.
Outside the log cabin, Sluggo and Tolstoy and Co-Star and Hermit lay flat with furry bellies toasting in the warm Arctic sun. Monson was playing a tape and porch speakers carried the Modern Mandolin Quartet over snow to thicket and silent hill. A gray jay snoozed in a tree.
``Oh, no,'' Butcher whispered. ``It's still calling.''