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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
Profile of Susan Butcher Biography of Susan Butcher Interview with Susan Butcher Susan Butcher Photo Gallery

Susan Butcher Interview (page: 7 / 8)

Champion Dog-Sled Racer

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  Susan Butcher

You didn't just go to Alaska and put some dogs together and start racing. You had obstacles to overcome. You had a struggle. Can you tell me about that?

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
When I went to Alaska, I did love the wilderness. I had spent a lot of time in the country, in Colorado and Maine, in some of eastern Canada, and western Canada, so I thought that I was prepared to go out into bush Alaska with just one other person. I really was not. My survival skills were nowhere what they should have been; however, I learned them the good way. I learned them by trial and error.

A friend and myself flew out to where the closest town was probably two hundred miles away, and the closest road was 70 miles away, and our closest neighbor forty miles away. I just took four dogs -- that's all I could afford to buy, I bought them for fifty dollars apiece -- and some dog food for them, a sack of flour, a slab of bacon, and a jar of peanut butter, and that was it. And this was going to be for six months, knowing this was not enough food, that we were going to have to live off the land. I have made a number of ridiculous mistakes. The most typical would be just misjudging the vastness of the Alaskan wilderness, and misjudging that there is absolutely no help out there for you if you have any problems.

The stupidest (mistake) was absolutely the day we were flown in, in the little single engine plane. The pilot dumped me and the dogs -- it was a plane on skis, the lake was frozen -- out on the lake and flew away. I had only owned the dogs -- they were little four-month-old puppies -- for about a week. Individually, they were really good at being let loose and coming to me. I was learning to train them, just my necessary obedience commands. So I let all four of them loose, thought this was a great idea, and I started toting things over to the small log cabin that was going to be our home. Pretty soon I looked up and no dogs were around. Well I was wearing -- because I was doing so much work, carrying all this stuff over the quarter of a mile to the cabin -- I was down to a light sweater and a turtleneck, a cotton turtleneck underneath. I suspect I had long underwear on, no hat, no mittens. And this was late November. In Alaska you can get 50 and 60 below at that time of year. We were probably at about zero or ten below during the day. So I decided I was going to take off. I didn't even tell my friend where I was going to. I mean, I thought I was going to go around the bend and find the dogs, and I went off calling their names and whistling and everything else, following their footprints. Well around dusk I had not found them. I was two mountain valleys over from where I was. I was starting to get really cold. The temperature was dropping phenomenally. It was probably at least 30 below, and I was getting seriously cold and really worried about the dogs and was to the point of: "Do I follow, continue to find them, or do I go back?" But it's really dark, and can I even find my way back, and realizing I had made a really serious judgment call. So what I did was I brought the sweater up around my head and over my arms -- luckily it was a large sweater -- and kind of got into that, and just said, "I think perhaps, as long as I can find the dogs in a reasonable time, that is my only way out because they can find our way back to the lake." Luckily, I only went about another half hour, and by that time it was really getting dark before the first puppy came to me, and shortly after the others. They had stayed in a pack. I could tell they were chasing moose tracks, and that was my worry. I was having trouble telling the difference between animal tracks, at this point in the dusk, and dog tracks. Well, I found the dogs, and being terrified of them running off again, I took off my turtleneck and left just my sweater on and used the turtleneck as a leash for two. Now I was mistaken in that, because they were as excited to see me as I was them. They were four-month-old puppies, and they said, "Where have you been?" So we were all happy to be reunited. And luckily, the extra physical effort that I had to hold two dogs on a leash, and to quickly follow them at a dog's pace back to the lake kept me very heated, and I made it back. But this was a stupid error, and could have turned out as badly as I have seen many cheechakos (newcomers to Alsaka). Many people who first come to the state have frozen to death one hundred yards from a cabin, making very stupid decisions, and basically thinking that they are are tougher than they are.

These were the types of challenges that I had. Learning the Eskimo and Indian cultures. It was a very new culture, but this was the first time I felt at home. I felt at home with the people. I felt at home with the country, and so, none of this was really fearful to me. I learned these lessons. I learned to have a very educated respect for nature, and a certain type of a fear, but I was never scared of what I was going forward into. And I became a little bit more and more cautious as the time went on. I am still not cautious enough. I am definitely one of those people who is a risk-taker. It seems to be just part of my life.

When I moved to Alaska -- having grown up in the city, and having disliked the city, and therefore disliked mass amounts of people, not individual people, but large groups of other people -- I felt that I could do without people. I mean, this would be the other extreme. After living at one point for four months alone in this cabin in the wilderness, without my friend, I realized that no, I did indeed need people. So this was a new revelation for me. But yet, I continued to live alone, often with closer neighbors than that. There were definitely some lonely years. The economic problem was amazing. I was 20 years old when I went up there. My first job -- I would get a summer job and make between 600 dollars and 1,000 dollars during the summer, and that had to support me and my dogs for the winter. Well luckily, in the beginning, I only had four. Finally, I had 11. And I was living mostly off of the land. I was eating moose myself, and for the dogs I was making a mixture of corn meal and rabbit and whatever I could get. So I did have very few expenses. Most of the jobs that I did get would be room and board in addition to some small salary. I could usually work a deal where it was room and board for me and my dogs. Because there is so much fish and native foods available to be able feed a dog team, which does not have to come from someone's pocket. So I made it through the early years until I started racing.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
When I started racing, it was such a huge expense. The added high nutrition you have to be feeding the dogs, the added equipment that you need. Before that, I had just built all of my own sleds -- they weren't good but they worked. One, I'd had time to do these extra things, and two, I didn't need good equipment. Now, all of a sudden, I needed to buy harnesses; I needed to buy sleds. And so, my first race, I went about five thousand dollars in debt; luckily, it was just, say, five hundred dollars to the sled builder, so on and so forth. And they were wonderful people. They gave me the credit with no exact time it was due back. So I would finish the race, win some prize money, pay them back as soon as I could.

Then I started going into the salmon industry. And I would work what we call "7-18," seven days a week, 18 hours a day. This is very typical of our fish industry; you can make a huge amount of money in a short season by working long hours either in the canneries, or fishing yourself, or whatever. And for five years, I worked all sorts of jobs in the salmon industry making very decent money. So I could usually bring myself up to close to zero in my bank balance, getting ready to go into the next racing season to spend five, ten thousand.

Can I say something about radar? This has happened to me well over a thousand times, so I know that it really happens. Mushing along, in the race, with this lack of sleep, you do that thing that everybody has experienced while driving, where you are kind of nodding, and you are not even sure how long you have been asleep. With the dogs mushing a fairly good trail, you might even fall asleep for a minute or two. Or a second or two. At any rate, your eyes are shut, and you are asleep, and the trails are not brushed back well.

There are often trees and things in the way that could hit you. I can be asleep, eyes shut, and a -- "radar" is all I can call it -- will "spot" the tree that's about to hit me, and I do not wake up in time to see it and duck. I duck before I am really awake, turn around, and I have just missed a branch. And it has happened literally thousands of times. This is something that (we used to have) before -- that you can come in contact with things -- that we lose by using all the technology. So there is a gain and a loss to the technology. So it isn't that I think everyone should live in the wilderness, but I do think to have experienced a little bit of it does give people a closer understanding of some of their own human nature, that is otherwise difficult for them to understand -- the emotions they are going through. On top of that, country living and wilderness living keeps you much closer to death. You see death in animals much more often. You see death in humans more often. We do have a lot of tragic drowning, people freezing to death, and various violent things. Not crime, but things that are happening out there. So you do experience dead bodies of humans, of dogs, of wildlife, of everything. Death becomes much closer to you as a part of life. I think that is often something that the sterileness of some cities, at any rate, takes away from you. The bodies are whisked away; you don't see this. This is a part of life, and I think a very good part of life, and something that we shouldn't have as much fear of.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
Another aspect of country living is that you actually see the gross and obvious mismanagement of the environment by man; if you live in the city you won't experience this on a daily basis. Often it's misunderstood where this bad management is happening. Or we tend to be extremists. We fish heavily in one area, and then say, "Oh, my God. The fish are all leaving this area, we should never fish it again."

A compromise is usually a better way to manage. Man exists on earth, and we do hunt animals, we do fish the fish out of the ocean, and we have disturbed nature in every far distant point of this land, whether man has ever walked on it or not. To have at one time gone in and shot a bunch of wolves, and to now say, "Never shoot a wolf again" means we are not managing nature correctly. If the wolves get too plentiful, they kill off all the moose, or they all die of starvation, and it is still man's fault. So we have to manage, and it's a compromise.

Perhaps we don't have all the right answers because this takes a lot of study, but we can see that a balance is necessary. This is what mother nature put on earth, an incredibly beautiful balance. We have imbalanced it. We have to re-balance it.

We have a huge responsibility. Absolutely. And many people are appalled or fearful of the aggressive response, which is perhaps to have to hunt or kill some moose in some areas or some wolves or some rats or anything that has overgrown. People have said "No!" to all death, "No!" to all destruction. And this is what I say about death: the lion eats the antelope; the seal eats the fish. This is the food chain. This is natural; this is okay. Death is okay. Killing is okay if it is done for the correct purposes. Killing for trophy hunting is not, in my mind, okay.

But for management of nature, this is something that we do have a responsibility for, and to just say, "No, let's leave it back in the hands of mother nature; let's throw all her animals back to her, never kill another animal." We are doing a disservice to all of them. Do we want certain ones to die off? Some die of disease or famine because we have already gone in and ruined their habitats. This is unfair, in my mind. I would rather see the short term suffering than the long term suffering.

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