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Susan Butcher

Interview: Susan Butcher
Champion Dog-Sled Racer

June 29, 1991
New York, New York

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When did you know that you wanted to live some place like Eureka, Alaska?

My first memories are not of knowing anything about Alaska, but of wanting to live in the wilderness, loving the country, and at that time, at least in my youth when I was in a city, hating city life. I really didn't get along well with what I saw going on in the cities. I thought it was bad for society. I thought it was unhealthy for individual humans. I thought it was especially unhealthy for my dog. And so I always knew that I loved country life, and the farther the wilderness, the better.

You wrote an essay at the age of eight: "I Hate the City." Tell us about that.

In the first grade, my mother saved those two-liners that I did on these big pieces of paper that said, "I hate the city. I love the country." As I got a little bit more sophisticated, they became compositions explaining what was negative about society that had created these cities, and what was positive about country life, and how it kept the stress off of people and animals living in the country. It was really interesting that I would have those thoughts so strongly.

How do you account for that, at such a young age?

It is interesting. It does not come from my family.

I feel that we are born with things that are really innate in us. I was born with a very strong love for animals and a sense from that. Animals of course were initially living in the wilderness. So from that, wanting to get back -- not so much "get back to nature," but to get back to seeing where our instincts come from, where we came from. What was really going on in man, other than what you could be taught in school.

What were you like in school? What were you like as a kid?

I am dyslexic. Not severely, but enough so that it caused me trouble in school. I was very good at mathematics and sciences. So I was a good student on one hand, although I was the typical student with a learning disability who fidgeted a lot, and wanted to be doing things more physically, including the way I have learned to learn. If I visualize it, if I can watch somebody doing it, or understand it that way, it's much better than book learning for me.

Who was important to you, early in your life?

I could not find role models that I liked. There were people who were adventurers, who had done wonderful things, but one, they were all men, and not that that kept them from being my role model, but they also were perhaps doing it for different reasons. I couldn't find people that were doing what I wanted to be doing for the reasons I felt I wanted to be doing them. I would say someone probably like Jane Goodall certainly caught my attention. People like that. I was frustrated with the lack of female role models as a child, and wondered why I wanted to do so many things that at time weren't very typical for a woman to be doing. And so, I think I had to learn at about 15 that I was going to have to set my own path.

How do you account for this independence of spirit, this determination to live your own life, on your terms, at a time when that was fairly unusual for someone in your position?

I really feel I had a strong sense of myself from the earliest memories that I have. I knew very much who I was, approximately what I wanted to do. I didn't know I wanted to be a dog musher. And I feel there are many things in life I could have done and had as much satisfaction as I am having. But I knew the type of things that I wanted to do, and I also knew that I wasn't going to let anybody come in the way of that. When I got my second dog, and I was living in my mother's house in Cambridge, and she said, "You will not get a second dog. I won't let you have two dogs in the house." Instead of saying, "Okay, I won't get a second dog," I got my second dog and moved out. So it was always a matter of... (being myself) and happily, and with a good relationship with my mother. This was not a negative thing towards my mother. This was not something that she even took as... I was very lucky to have parents that supported my ability to be responsible. I wasn't into drugs. I wasn't a bad child in those ways. It was obvious that I was a workaholic and someone who wanted to live a fairly clean life, and not get into that type of trouble. So they could trust that if I wanted to do something, there was a good reason for it.

My parents were not thrilled that I didn't go on to college and that I went up to Alaska to mush dogs. I think (they were) like many parents, that think, "This is a stage she is going through," so they weren't unsupportive. "This is a neat thing to do, Susan, and when are you coming back?" And so, finally they saw though, how happy I was up there, how dedicated I was to what I was doing, and that they probably weren't going to see me back down here living. And they often asked me how did I think I was going to support myself, because I was just getting more and more broke. I was just going in the hole. I was having a lot of financial troubles. But, I never asked for any help financially, and always managed to squeak by, and finally found a way to make a living, becoming really one of the first professional dog mushers ever. I mean, that was not something that was going on at the time that I entered the sport. And so it was a matter of believing in what I did. And going for it.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
Ever have any self-doubts? About either yourself or what you were doing?

I think we all experience self-doubt. I am not going to tell you that I don't have insecurities or low self-esteem sometimes. But "self-doubt" -- what that word means to me -- I really don't remember experiencing. I didn't have fears of what I was going forward to. I felt I knew what it was that I wanted, and I felt that what I wanted was worthy.

Was there a moment when you knew that you wanted to do?

There was not one single moment that told me I wanted to become a professional dog musher. It was more a thing that, throughout my life, I knew I would be working with animals. I knew I would be especially working with dogs, and I knew I would be living in the wilderness. I just chose a Siberian Husky as a pet dog. I went to pick it up from the people, and they said, "Oh, you know, the mother was an Alaskan sled dog, and she was actually a leader. Wouldn't it be fun if you taught your puppy how to pull a sled?" From there, I went on to being enthralled with it, and the first time I read about the Iditarod, which was the first year it happened, I just said "I'm going to go up there and run that race." Again, even at that point, I certainly didn't know that I would be doing it fourteen years later.

Why dog sled racing?

Well, of course, it was the typical thing. Everyone thought that because of my love of animals and my love of the country, that I would become a country doctor, a veterinary doctor. And so,

I went to Colorado State University, took courses, became a veterinarian technician, and took courses above and beyond technician work in the veterinary field. But I was not a student, mostly because of my dyslexia, but also because of my love of doing physical things and of being outdoors. And there really was not enough of that. I would have been happy to have gone straight into veterinary school. But they wanted you to take English I, and History I, and everything else, and I was too impatient for that. Having worked for a vet for three years, I adored it. I love veterinary medicine. It's very interesting to me. But I could see it wasn't what I wanted to spend my whole life doing -- being inside of a building doing veterinary work. I wanted to be outside. I would say that when I moved to Alaska and started dog mushing, it wasn't so much that it brought me sublime happiness -- but total contentment. And I never missed anything else. I lived alone for nine years following my dream. There were some very lonely times; there were some very difficult times. I was often living alone, with my closest neighbor forty miles away. It was tough times for me. But I was never discontented.

I was very, I have to say, happy. I remember trying to explain this to my family, that I had obviously found something very right for me.

From the first moment that I landed in Alaska, I felt at home for the first time in my life. So there really is something -- and I don't want to become mystical about this, but it's something that I don't completely understand -- which is that there was this person born in me that absolutely should have been born in Alaska, or should have been born fifty years before or one hundred years before, where I could have been a pioneer. That's all there is to it. I was born with the pioneering spirit.

What does the Iditarod mean to you?

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
Had the Iditarod not been happening, I would have just been dog mushing throughout Alaska and doing adventures using the dogs. The Iditarod race was started by a man named Joe Redington, Sr., and it was a great vehicle for me, a chance to have a livelihood through the prize money, through sponsorships, through the dog sales.

Did it ever occur to you that this is something a woman doesn't do?

It never did occur to me that this was something a woman shouldn't do. There were no competitive women racing at that time in long distance racing. We have sixty to seventy mushers every year, and more than half of them go on a camping trip to complete the course. There were three women who had completed it by the time I started, but I had a very different idea, and wanted to go in there competitively because I had a very strong competitive nature. I was astounded and very unhappy my first year, when I found that there was some resistance from my fellow mushers because I was a woman. But what I did was to basically ignore it, and just go forward.

it wasn't until about six or seven years later -- having fought the problems and some of the prejudices that were very strong there and knocking me in the face, and I was just refusing to look at them -- that I was speaking with a woman, and saying that I am so tired of certain things, and explaining them to her. And she said, "Don't you understand that by going and breaking trials and setting standards that you are bound to butt into these things? And it is harder for you to do it." And I had never even thought of that before. I did not specifically set out to be a pioneer for women. To me, I was always very aware that I was a woman, and I was very aware that I was the only woman being competitive. But I also saw it was that I was being a human being, and that's how I wanted to be accepted. And I didn't see why people couldn't accept that right away. But it wasn't until I became accepted as well as I have now that I realize the struggle that I did go through.

What does it take, one, to be a dog musher, and two, to be competitive in something like the Iditarod?

To be a dog musher -- what we call recreational mushers -- is not a big deal. It really just takes time, and if you don't want to go a thousand miles in March, like we do, you don't have to put a lot of training into it. You can use the dogs for your enjoyment or when you want to travel, and they don't have to be heavily trained because they are such incredible animals.

But to be a racer is a totally different thing. The competition is extremely fierce. Getting fiercer every year. You have to have more dogs. You have to have, in essence, a bench. If you are going to need twenty dogs for the team, you have to have say, at least thirty because you have to have some reserves. If you are going to buy them all, you only have to own perhaps thirty. If you are going to raise them all like I do, you have to own somewhere around one hundred, so then you just are quadrupling the formula. And most important is the care that you are giving these dogs.

They are no longer dogs; they are professional athletes, so they need sports medicine in addition to regular veterinary medicine. They need the best nutrition possible. They need training on a daily basis from the age of one or two days old until the time that you retire them. It's a totally different story between racing and recreational mushing.

How would you describe your relationship to these dogs?

My relationship is extremely close. I have often described it as... that they are my friends, my family, and my workmates. So they get my attention around the clock. They are of total importance to me, because certainly during those years when I lived alone, they were often my only friends. Now I have my husband, and a few young people working for me, but they are still often my closest friends. And then, they are my livelihood. We work together as a team on a daily basis. I train 12 to 16 hours a day, usually seven days a week. And only when I am away -- perhaps 30 days a year -- am I ever off of that schedule. So I am really spending all of my time with these dogs. And I raise them all from puppies. So they are my family, they are very much like children.

Tell us what it takes to prepare for the Iditarod.

For me to be able to win the Iditarod, here in the early '90s, I have to train at least 11-and-a-half months a year, and this is basically seven days a week.

I am training myself through running, cycling, weight lifting program, and then for about nine months of the year -- eight to nine months of the year -- I am on a sled, and I am mushing 50 to 70 miles a day. And that, in addition to caring for the dogs, and hauling the water from the creek -- we still don't have running water -- and heating with wood and stuff, my lifestyle is keeping me fit. As far as the dogs go, from the time the dogs are four months of age, they go in harness, pulling either a sled in the wintertime or a four-wheeled cart in the summertime, three to four times a week for the rest of their lives. So each dog in my kennel needs to go three to four times a week. As puppies, say two to ten miles, and as they advance, from ten to 90 miles a day, depending on the length that I am going to be running them. And during this process, I am physically conditioning them, I am mentally training them, and I am educating them. And all are equally important, and all are very exciting because I am at the leading edge of my sport.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
Now dog mushing is a very old lifestyle, but dog sled racing is a relatively new sport, really just twenty years old. So advances are being made very rapidly, and there are no books to read; we cannot find out what the next move is, so that is one of the things that keeps it so exciting for me. I am always having to figure out new conditioning methods, new training methods to educate the dogs; and then probably of foremost interest and importance to me would be the mental training -- the trust that I develop with them. The winning spirit that I enhance in them and bring forward. I am really looking for the mental athlete when I pick my pups. I do not always pick the best physical specimen if it doesn't have that extra athletic heart.

Let's go back to those early days, when you first started to compete. What you did have to overcome, not just to win the race, but to win acceptance?

Well, my first year, I came in "in the money". I was the first woman to do so, and so attention, media attention, of course, turned to me quite rapidly. And everybody kind of turned to take note. I didn't do that well, but it was allowable. "Here's a freak, look at her, she did this."

The next year, I advanced rapidly and was in the top ten. And immediately, hackles started coming up in the back of the neck. I started getting a very different reception, but they weren't discounting me yet. That didn't happen until the next year, when I was in the top five. And then, immediately, many of my fellow mushers were saying, "She was lucky. It was an easy year." There was always some sort of excuse for the reason that I was doing well. In addition, I ran into all sorts of really harsh criticism -- verbally, to my face. Sometimes even physical acts that made it twice as difficult for me to continue down the trail.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
The next year, when I continued to do as well, and the following years, many of the male mushers formed a group against me, and worked as a group against me, planning their strategies to ruin my strategy for the race. And it was somewhere in there that I saw -- in order for me to win the race, I had to be much better than they were. I didn't have to be just a little bit better than the best male. He could win being just a little bit better. And they just weren't going to let me win, being that much better. So it was then that I said, "Well, then I take that challenge, and I will become that much better, and I can become that much better, and I think I know how." And I started working on it. And it did come true because I had to do that, and I had to work so hard on it. It wasn't something that was going to happen easily.

It wasn't until my eighth race that I won. And yes, perhaps I was starting to have an inkling of self-doubt. But I knew I could win. And I had great faith, or, of course, I never could have finally pulled it all together. But when the papers would say, and my fellow mushers would say, "She will never be able to win because of such and such," you know, this does work on you mentally. You combat it, you say it's not true, but you constantly hear it. It's very difficult. The other thing is, all these men that, jointly, went against me, were individually my good friends. So that was very painful; to have good friends be fine the rest of the year, and treat you as a friend, and yet, when they would get into a racing situation, and get in this buddy system, I was out. I wasn't even welcome to share the campfires with them. So it was tough. There was a real loneliness in it for me.

Can you think back to what you felt like that moment, after the first victory, when you crossed the finish line and you were the winner?

You know, when I first won the race, I think I was almost in shock. I don't think I could enjoy what had happened until almost twenty-four hours later. I had worked so hard for it. And, of course, at this point in the race you are also so exhausted. There was certainly just a glow and a contentment in me. But to actually finally sit back and say "I am the champion of the Iditarod!" This was something that had just been so high and just close enough to almost touch, but never touch, and all of a sudden I was there. It was amazing to me that I had actually reached a goal. And then, I think as anybody who reaches a goal knows, there is a depression that goes with that. I had experienced this with every finish of every Iditarod because that in itself is a goal -- just to be able to finish. So I knew a little bit about it. But there was definitely a depression that happened after that. I worked quickly to combat it. Probably a week or two after the finish, I just said, "Well, it's time to get ready for next year's race, and I am going to win that one," and I learned that was the way to battle that problem. In fact, the next year, what I did, after winning again was, as I was standing at the finish line and the media wanted to interview me about that race -- the '87 race -- and ask me how it went, I said, "I don't want to talk about this year's race. It's over. I've won it. Let's talk about next year's race. I'm coming back to win it again." The instant I was done with that goal, I went on to my next. And I never went through the depression.

Did things change among your fellow competitors?

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
I think by the time I had won my first race, there was no doubt in anybody's mind of my ability or my dogs' ability. And I think I do have the respect. I really don't blame anyone for the problems. We all have to grow. I had to make the move into becoming a woman very dominant in the sport, and it was a long growing process for me. It was also a growing process that all the men had to go through, too. So I have never found fault with any individual for the problems that they had dealing with me entering the sport. The respect came, and they really do have great respect for my abilities. The media has made a big thing of it, and that is difficult for them. It's difficult for me. And that is the only ongoing conflict at this point.

What is it like out there on the trail, under those circumstances? Can you try to describe it for us?

For the musher, the most difficult aspect is the lack of sleep. And it is an ongoing and constant thing that you are aware of. We are getting between one and two hours of sleep a day for perhaps an 11 to 13, 14-day race. It turns out a little bit more than that.

In a 12-day race I'll get about 20 hours of sleep. Most people think that fact in itself would make this an extremely grueling, totally uncomfortable race. Then you add to it the cold. We are often as cold as 50 below. You have the wind storms; you have the snow storms; you also might have forty above zero. You have a lot of elements that are causing what most people view as discomfort. But again, the thing to remember is that we live in that all year round. And, although, yes, I am very, very cold at fifty below, and even as good as I have learned to dress in those temperatures, I am not going to say I am completely comfortable. Yet, I know how to deal with them, and I am not miserable. Although sometimes you are! But I am often not miserable. So the thing that I think is important for me to say is that the country we are going through is so magnificent and beautiful. Even though I've gone through this same country many, many, many times, it is never anything less than spectacular. And it is always changing. Every 20, 30, or 40 miles, you come into a totally new terrain. Maybe you are in some really tall mountains, the Alaska range, or one of the other ranges we go over. You could be on the Yukon River, which is, at some points, a mile across. Just magnificent. Or the frozen tundra, which is not beautiful in the same sense as the mountains, but awesome in it's expanse. So there is always something beautiful to look at. If it's the night, you may not be able to see anything except for the stars, and more often, the Northern Lights. So we are always out in the spectacular nature and the wilderness, and no matter how tired you are, no matter how cold you are, you are able to appreciate that.

Most important is that you are out there with your 12, 16, 20 best friends -- the dogs. I have raised each one of them. I have trained them. I know each little personality. I know what they are thinking as they are going down the trail, each individually. They are all thinking different thoughts. I know how much they're enjoying it. And I can see the work that we have accumulatively put together to make this team perform the way it is obviously performing for me -- if I am being able to win -- is so satisfying and fantastic. To me, today, there is nothing that brings me more joy than to see a 16-dog team trotting down the trail with just as much power as you could muster. It's just a beautiful scene to me.

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.

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.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
Your encounter with the crazed moose that killed some of your dogs, is that the worse thing that has ever happened to you in the Iditarod?

That is definitely the worst thing, as far as that it ended with tragedy. However my close calls, my encounters with open water, have been muchmore severe and have been much closer to death for me and/or the team than this was. For the full team this one ended very tragically. But I've got to say, I'm a lot more scared of open water than I am of moose today.

You've told a story on occasion about a time when a dog disobeyed your order and it saved your life. Is that true?

The most important thing that I believe my job is, is to train my dogs to have a "trust-and-be-trusted" relationship. This starts with me working with the puppies, training them to always trust that I will never ask them to go any further or faster than they are capable of; and yet, everyday, in some way, I will challenge them perhaps to go a little bit farther than they know they are capable of doing. However, if they show me they are not capable of something, I'm there to comfort and praise them, to give them whatever they need. If they do accomplish it, I'm there to praise them. I do this sometimes by just letting the puppies run loose, and sometimes the dog team. That trust is fairly easy to give to them. The other side of it is that I need to trust in them, trust that they are smarter in the wilderness than I am. I will many times have to depend on their lives, and my life, in their knowledge. And one of the first ways I found this out was after just two years of living in Alaska. I was traveling on a trail I had been using all winter long which crossed a frozen river, and my lead dog, Teckla at the time, took off to the right. I told her to go back on to the trail. She took off to the right again. This dog never disobeyed me, and I could not understand why she was trying to do it. So I finally gave her her head, she pulled the team off to the side just as the trail collapsed into the river, and we all would have drowned. So she had a sixth sense that saved our lives.

It's mutual trust. Theirs in my guidance, and mine in their ability and instincts, in the wilderness, that has saved our lives many times.

Has the thought ever crossed your mind, out there, during the toughest part of any of these races, that you just want to give up, just quit?

No. Absolutely not.

I do not know the word "quit." Either I never did, or I have somehow abolished it from my language. If you allowed it to enter your mind, I think during the worst times when you are so exhausted, and so cold, and the dogs may be getting tired towards the end of a four or five-hour run, you'd quit. You would. You have to see only that you are going into this specific race, whether it be a 300 or a 500 or 1,000-mile race, or individual training run. You are going to complete this. Then, if some force, such as the moose, becomes so great, it's going to be obvious that you should quit. So you can't think about "quit." I just don't think it even enters my mind. I am always so keyed up for the challenge, and not only in a racing situation where it would be quite obvious, because for the Iditarod I have trained for -- let alone many years -- an entire year for this race. Just because I got a little cold and tired would be a stupid reason to give up an entire year's work. But even moreso, I think the examples that show my lack of willingness to quit would be certain training runs. Runs where I may be out on a 500-mile trip, there is no reason why I have to make it from point A to point B. There is nothing driving me but my own desire to get there. And where I am getting isn't even an important thing to me. It somehow is just to have that challenge. I have been known to walk in front of my team for 55 miles with snowshoes to lead them through snowstorms in non-racing situations, where I could have just as easily radioed for a plane to come and get me. Instead, I will take the other way out. And it's certainly given my life incredible fulfillment.

What's the funniest thing that's ever happened to you out there?

I love this story. Because of the lack of sleep, we do get to the point of hallucinations. I have learned now to take little 15-minute catnaps and how to stay mostly in control of these hallucinations. But my first years of racing, I was horrible. I had no idea how to sleep. I would usually go for two or three days without a single nap, and then I'd sleep for five hours. So I was not doing it right. And at one point in the race, I was traveling along, and I thought there were four of us on the sled and we each had a job. My job was to lean to the right if the sled would tip to the left. Another person's job was to lean to the left if the sled would tip to the right. One person was supposed to use the brake, and I never did figure out what the fourth person was doing on the sled. But here we were going between Slatta Crossing and Ruby, over these huge hills, and I was doing a really good job in my job. Every time the sled would lean to the left, I'd lean to the right. But the others, they weren't doing a good job at all, and we would tip over! And I would get my face completely full of snow, and you would think that this would wake me up out of this. I would throw the sled back up and yell at these non-existent people and off we'd go. I later found out by looking at my watch that this went on for almost seven hours. The way it stopped was I was going along and I fell off the sled, in my hallucination, and the team was running away from me. There's a rope that drags behind the sled we call the snub line. Well, I grabbed the snub line, and I am yanking it, and yelling, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!" and they were disappearing off into the distance. I finally woke up because I did not have a hold of the snub line. Indeed I had lost the sled, and we have a headlight that we use on our head, and it has a cord on it, and I had a hold of the cord, and I was yanking my head up and down yelling "Whoa!" and I woke up to see my team disappearing into the wilderness. And I said, "This is bad. This is not good." Luckily, they were as tired as I was. I told them to "Whoa!" and they stopped. I went up there, we camped, and I slept. But definitely, the hallucinations are pretty hysterical.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
In one race, Joe Garnie and I were neck and neck -- we often are -- and traveling along in the northern arctic, up by Nome. The arctic tree line well below us. There are absolutely no trees up there. Well, I was in the lead and we got off the trail. I went up to the front of my team, and we were in a thick forest, and I had to lead my dogs through this forest. Joe came up behind me and said, "What are you doing?" and I said, "Well, I'm leading the team through these trees back to the trail." He said, "Susan, there are no trees here." And I said, "I know, but I can't make them go away." And he said, "Neither can I." We both were seeing the same trees. We could not make our minds get rid of them and make a straight line to the trail. We wove our way through these trees back to the trail. So it's quite amazing what exhaustion can do.

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.

You've won the Iditarod four times. But what about the other side? What about failure? How do you deal with that?

Before I won my first Iditarod, I was trying very hard to do so. And I had a very fast team, well conditioned, well trained. But I kept coming in second in more races than I care to remember. Clearly, some essential element was missing. I feel it was the winning spirit and vision. I would often finish in a race an hour or a minute or a split second behind someone else, but I'd have the strongest and fastest team. So in 1986, I learned how to pull it all together. I told myself that not only could I win, but that I deserved to win. And that I could win today. I knew before that I "someday" would win the Iditarod, but I didn't see myself as a winner today. So I kept on failing. In 1986, I lived and breathed the vision of winning the Iditarod for the full year. And I held it 11 days into the Iditarod, where I was neck and neck with Joe Garnie, 44 miles from the finish line. I had less than 20 hours of sleep in 11 days. I had run up every hill between Anchorage and Nome. But Joe made a final push and passed me, gaining a two-minute lead. I was exhausted and demoralized, and said to myself, "Well, I guess second place isn't too bad." But then through the blur of fatigue, I remembered the vision of myself winning the 1986 Iditarod, and I knew this race could be mine alone. And so for the next 44 miles, I ran, pumped with one leg or pushed until I passed Joe and won my first Iditarod.

I feel this same vision has seen me through many races, but clearly not all of them. It takes a lot more than vision.

In this most recent race in 1991, I finished the worst I have done since 1983, in any race of any distance. I finished third despite the fact that I trained myself and my team better than I have ever done before. Despite turning over every leaf in my preparation, I lost.

I was said to have the best team in the history of the Iditarod. And because of this, I ran a very aggressive race. But mother nature threw every curve at me and my team that she could. I ended up breaking trail for almost five hundred miles through windstorms, through new snow on the trail, and not physically exhausting my dogs, but mentally exhausting my dogs. We were constantly searching for the trail, giving them the commands for right and left.

It's a tough job to break trail for the rest of the teams. I still reached the village of White Mountain over one hour in front of my closest competitor. And this is seventy-seven miles from Nome. From there I went first into the eye of an arctic blizzard, and I struggled for six hours, losing and regaining the trail, until finally, because of the trust I had developed in my dogs, I knew that I could not ask them for anymore. So I lost.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
I feel that because I challenge myself so often, sometimes I will fail. This is, to me, the essence of competition -- that there will be both winners and losers. But I have great faith in myself that I will turn this loss into something positive.

First, there are many lessons to be learned. One of my favorite lessons is best summed up in the words of an old Athabascan Indian who told me, "There are many hard things in life, but there is only one sad thing, and that is giving up." In addition, I feel that in failure, it is just another step in attaining my final goal. My goal was not to win the 1991 Iditarod only. My goal is to become the best long distance sled dog racer in the world. And really, failures, if anything, can be turned around into being one of the best things that happen to you in life.

As tragic as the loss of my dogs by the moose was for me, it certainly was a turning point. I had to look at what I was doing, and say that this brought me more pain then I'd ever felt before. Having put my beloved dogs in a situation where two of them were killed, mourning the loss of them. Did I really want to run the Iditarod again? And was it worth putting myself in these positions and not winning?

I had come to the realization that, yes, with the hundreds of thousands of miles that I had mushed, this had only happened once, was not going to be a common occurrence, and it never happened again. It really taught me a new dedication to what I was doing. And I think out of this failure in 1991, I will again gain a new dedication. One more step up the ladder. Not, perhaps, just toward running the Iditarod, but to, perhaps, the next step in my life. It's often the failures that you learn more from than the wins, or reaching one's goals.

So, what's left for you? What's next?

I have many years of racing left in me, but I also want to raise a family. I am thirty-six years old at this time, so it's important that soon I start my family. But I can race afterwards, a little bit during the early years of raising children. In addition, I am getting more and more interested in the research and development of where the sport of sled dog racing is going, in the care of canines and felines and all pets in general, and in the education of the public as to how they should be caring for the pets; and the education of the public as to what we should be doing with nature, and with the wildlife in particular. However, I will never leave my lifestyle of dog mushing. It is inherent to me now -- will always be the main basis of what makes up my daily satisfaction, my daily contentment with life.

How is life different living in a place like Eureka? How are priorities different than for people living in cities?

The most wonderful one is that the weather -- what mother nature is doing -- dictates your entire life. And this is so much a part of my life, I don't understand it not being. Because I often have commitments to somebody on the outside world, I find that the rest of the world is not like that. When they ask me to come and do a speaking engagement on March the third, at three o'clock, they rarely understand when I say, "I'll be there -- weather permitting." I am not saying that I won't give it my absolute all to get there, but sometimes you merely cannot get out. You can't get a helicopter; you can't get a plane. No amount of money can move me from the spot that I may be in. In fact, the best method out of there is a dog team. But that's going to be slow and sure, and if I've got a hundred miles to go, I'm not going to be able to do it in the hour that they need me to rush off and get down to California, or something. So that I think is great. Your life, your daily life, is dictated by what the weather is doing. Your sense that you have to rely completely on yourself, that there are no people to turn to, is an incredibly satisfying feeling. And once you become content with it, I think that people would find that they have a whole lot more self-esteem and self-confidence that is built by knowing that you can depend on yourself and not on somebody else.

And then, perhaps as you learn to depend on people for certain things, as I am depending on more and more people, my husband and many other people in my life now, more than I used to, I still have all that initial self confidence, which is that they could disappear, and I'd still be fine. As much as I wouldn't like it, I'm still fine. And that sense is really a wonderful sense. So I think that's a lot of what Eureka brings to me.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
The lack of television, the lack of outside stimulus is really what people should experience sometime in their lives, because I find I have such a sense of well-being and understanding of what is going on in my life. And if there is something tragic going on, I will be very depressed, very unhappy. But there is a cause. There is cause and effect out there.

On the other hand, I've gone in to Anchorage and had lunch with a friend who is just feeling dragged down and doesn't really know why. Yet during the lunch, she tells me about a motorcyclist who came by in the morning while she was driving to work and gave her the finger, the bus driver who wouldn't give her the correct change. All this stuff. Well, it's depressing. Yet people think: "This is just part of life, I'm supposed to take it. I'm a career woman. I'm going off to work. My husband and I are getting along. And my career is moving along, so why am I depressed?"

Or they watch the news, or some horrible horror movie at night. These things affect us greatly, and people don't give them credit. And if these people could get away from it for a while -- I'm not saying that they should be negated from people's lives -- but they could learn how much effect these things have on daily life. And I enjoy the lack of that type of effect.

What advice do you have for young people?

I feel very fortunate that from a very early age I knew what I wanted to do. And I know that many people of 18, 24, 30 years old, still have not really reached a passion the way I had a passion at a very young age. But whenever you do find something -- maybe it's not as passionate for you as dog mushing has been for me -- but the fact that you have any interes. that is what you should go with. And particularly if you have a passion, no matter how many people criticize that passion, no matter if you cannot see the link between how what you are going to do is going to benefit others, I can promise you if you do anything well, it will benefit others. So you have to go with your dream, which is certainly what I have done, which has brought my life great fulfillment.

I have ended up being able to be a role model for other people and to be very helpful for a lot of people. When I initially saw dog mushing, I did not see how it could benefit other people. But in the end I will work it, so it can give as much benefit to my career, to my life, to as many other people as I can affect. So I think... I do believe in luck. A lot has been said that there is luck here and there, but I believe that you make your own luck. Those that are best prepared have the best luck.

Educate yourself well. Just keep your eyes opened. It isn't really that you need a Ph.D. I did not end up going on and finishing college. I took a lot of courses. I am learning as much today as I learned when I left high school. I have my eyes opened constantly; I take courses; I read books. I am always there so that if something happens, my mind is ready to absorb it, take advantage of it, make my own luck. So everybody makes their own luck. There is bad luck; there is good luck, but mostly... Be prepared. Keep your mind open. You can be ready for anything that comes along.

It does take hard work and dedication to reach anything. And if it doesn't... If you do fall into something that is just pure luck, you will never have the same type of satisfaction as something that you really feel that you had to work for and achieve and got.

I think it's important to find something that is a really hard challenge for yourself, and when you reach the age of fifty, you will not feel that you should have done something better with your life. Even if you are a millionaire, or billionaire, you may be an unsatisfied one. And that is something that only time can tell. Each of us has to go through that, really, and experience it. But that has certainly been my experience in life; the more I put into any individual accomplishment, the more I have gotten out of it.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
Some young people don't have as strong passions as I did, and because even with the strong passions that I had, I did not know whether I was going to be a solo around-the-world sailor. I did not know if I was going to be a dog musher or a farmer with a bunch of cows. I didn't know exactly where my passion was going to lead me. Open yourself for all of the challenges that come along, and don't worry too much about each decision that comes along in your life. You don't have to make the perfect decision.

I do not feel that dog mushing was the only thing that could have brought me as much joy as I get now. I feel that I could have gone into many different fields, and been just as happy as I am now. I never belabored any one decision too much because if you do, you often miss the opportunity. So if opportunity rings, it sounds interesting, whether it's to go to a special school, or to go on some adventure, just do it. If it sounds good, just do it. Especially when you are young. That's the time to do it.

Get out there and experience as many different things as you can -- and a lot of them should be outside of the formal education field. There is a lot that college can teach you, but there is a lot to be learned in the real world. Better to learn it early than to wait until you are twenty-four and all of a sudden step out into the real world and say "Now what?" A year off from college somewhere in between won't hurt at all.

Is there any book that influenced you?

When I was still in Massachusetts and had just vaguely gotten an inkling of dog mushing in the wilderness, I read a story about Eskimos up in the Northwest Territory, and I was really thrilled with their lifestyle. The Eskimos in Alaska were a lot of what drew me there, and are still one of my passions today -- understanding their culture, how they live, and how they are dealing with being thrown into the twentieth century so rapidly in just four generations.

I might have guessed Jack London's, Call of the Wild.

I read Jack London, and I loved him. There are so many differences between what he wrote about, and what the norm is in dog mushing. I still love his stories as much as I ever did, but I also see discrepancies between the romantic stories that he told and what reality is You know, he often had vicious dogs, but the dogs are actually docile, wonderful pets. I find myself having to re-educate the public from what they learned from Jack London. But other than that, I adore him.

Are we going to read a book by Susan Butcher?

Someday. When I find the time. Perhaps when I am pregnant.




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