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If you like Susan Butcher's story, you might also like:
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Dorothy Hamill,
Edmund Hillary
and Craig McCaw

Susan Butcher also appears in the videos:
You Can Do Anything,
Risk-Taking: An Ingredient for Success

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Susan Butcher
Susan Butcher
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Susan Butcher Interview (page: 5 / 8)

Champion Dog-Sled Racer

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  Susan Butcher

You've said you enjoy the scenery while you're running the race, but you also must have things to worry about out there.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
Many people say, "What do you think about for 12 days?" Well, you are constantly, at every step of the way, worrying about steering the sled, making sure that the dogs are going the direction that you want them to, staying on the trail, so on and so forth. The trails are not huge, beautiful paths. We go over boulders, over fallen trees, over bare ground, twists and turns and down through mountain gorges, and over glare ice, through open water, everything. The actual steering of the sled for the musher is very physically demanding. In addition, you are trying to watch what's going on two or three feet in front of the sled, you're looking at your lead dogs way up there, and at every dog in the team, making sure that they are okay, taking the bends correctly, and that there are no problems. That is really what you are spending your time thinking about when you are mushing down the trail.

You are constantly checking how each individual dog is performing -- is one tiring before the rest of the group? If so, it's time to stop. You always stop for the weakest dog, not the strongest dog. When should I stop next? What should I feed them next? Where, when is the next checkpoint? You're trying to look at the terrain around you, trying to figure out where you are. I have a map, a compass. I'm constantly checking my watch, trying to find out if I am lost or if I am on the right trail. All of these things are of great concern every moment of every day.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
In addition, you are in a race. You are not just on a survival trip. So you are worrying about where so and so is. Perhaps you just passed a fellow musher stopped by the trail. Is he going to stop for a half hour, is he going to stop for four hours? What does this mean to my strategy? When did I last see him? Let's see, he left the checkpoint a little bit in front of me. Am I moving faster than him? All these types of things. Or perhaps you literally pass somebody on the go. Well, that's a wonderful feeling, and you say, "A- ha! I'm faster!" [laughs] Or, "At this point in the race I am faster." So it's a great game of strategies. It's a great game of dog care. Do you want to be out in the lead? How much faster are you than another one? When should you take your rest periods, and when should you push? This is great.

Then you have the storms, and you have everything else that comes in to create havoc with what would be a perfect strategy. So it's a balance between a survival act and a typical race. There are so many aspects; I think this is why it has held my interest for so long. There are always new things to get better at. Right now I am spending a lot of my time working on canine nutrition, on canine sports medicine. I am actually getting back into the veterinary field because I love it so much, to find out where I can enhance the team. But again, what I am looking for is not written in any book. I am working with veterinarians on the next step that they don't even know about. And it's really exciting.

It sounds like it could be dangerous out there.

There are a lot of dangers. We have avalanches. We have the dangers of the Arctic blizzards which are, in many ways, the most fearsome. Many people freeze to death every year who travel in those countries. No one has ever frozen to death in the race, but this happens typically with the local people, so we know that it is extremely dangerous. The open water is perhaps the thing we fear the most, or the thin ice. In 1984 I can tell a story of being ten miles away from a checkpoint village, an Eskimo village of Shaktoolik. I traveling on some salt water ice, and I was quite a ways off land. And all of a sudden I realized that the ice was billowing around me. And so, just as I realized how dangerous it was, I gave the dogs the command to turn towards land, just as my sled broke through. So I went under, broke through, the successive dogs right in front of the sled broke through because of the weight of my sled. But the lead dogs and a couple pairs behind them were able to stay up on the hard ice and slowly but surely pull the rest of us out. It was probably about 30 below, and there is not one blade of grass out there. There is nothing to start a fire with to warm us up or dry us off.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
So I just kept everybody moving. I ran for the next ten miles to keep myself from freezing to get to the next checkpoint. Now, this water that I broke through was deep enough to drown me, but just as often the danger is merely getting wet in temperatures below zero, where there is no shelter from the wind, and there is often nothing to start a fire with. That is a great danger. A less common danger, but nonetheless very serious, is the moose. The wolves are simply curious. They never cause us any problems. The bears, except for the polar bears, are in hibernation, and most of the polar bears are much further north than where we race. So the only danger for us really is the moose and the buffalo. But we only run through one herd of buffalo on the way to Nome. The moose generally run away from a dog team but occasionally they will somehow feel entrapped, and they feel they have to run towards you, and in essence, through the dog team. That has probably happened to me three or four times. No serious injuries to the dogs, none to me. Only minor injuries.

I was traveling alone at night in the lead of the race and ran into an obviously crazed moose. She was starving to death. There was something wrong with her. She was just skin and bones. And rather than run away, she turned to charge the team. I thought she would just run through me. I stopped the team, threw the sled over. She had plenty of room to pass us along the trail. She came into the team and stopped. She just started stomping and kicking the dogs. She charged at me. For 20 minutes, I held her off with my ax and with my parka, waving it in her face. And finally, another musher came along and we shot her, but not before she had killed two of my dogs, and she injured 13 others, leaving me to scratch from the race. She bruised my shoulder. We spent the next two weeks at a veterinary hospital, saving the lives of the injured dogs. So these things are possible, but this is very atypical. Mostly, the moose will cause little trouble. But these are some of the dangers that we have to be prepared for.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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This page last revised on Feb 28, 2011 18:30 EST
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