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Urbanite answers call of wild and becomes top dog sled racer

By Larry Eldridge / March 4, 1988



Even as a child growing up in Cambridge, Mass., Susan Butcher knew she really belonged somewhere else. ``I loved animals and the outdoors,'' she recalls. ``I felt very confined by city life. In first grade I wrote things like, `I hate the city.' By fourth grade it was stuff like, `I hate the city because society is ruining the earth for animals, and people who live in the country are happier.'''

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The little girl who was to become the world's most famous dog sled racer also realized early on that she had a very special affinity for the canine species.

``I had my first dog when I was four,'' she says. ``When he was 6 and I was 10, Cambridge put in a leash law. I was told I had to give him up. I said I would train him, but everybody said it wouldn't work. I was just a kid, he was too old to learn new tricks, all that stuff. But I took him to obedience school and taught him to be on a leash. It was perfect. Just perfect.''

But this was just the beginning. More and more as she grew up, Susan felt an inexplicable call to a different life.

``I saw a race in Laconia, N.H.,'' she remembers, ``and I said to myself, `That's what I'm going to do.''' By age 16, she was living with a grandmother in Maine, where she got her first husky pup. At 18 she went to Colorado and moved in with a woman who ran a kennel with 50 siberian huskies. But even that wasn't enough.

``I had to get in a truck to get to trails,'' she recalls. ``I said to myself, `I know there's a place where there are thousands of miles of trails.'' So at the age of 20, she moved to Alaska.

In the 13 years since then, Butcher has become one of her adopted states's most celebrated citizens - and lately her fame has spread well beyond its borders. Last year after becoming the first woman and only the second person to win the Iditarod Trail race twice in a row she was named Professional Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation and met with President Reagan at the White House.

Now it is time again for the world-famous 1,150-mile trek through the Alaskan wilderness from Anchorage to Nome. And as Butcher and her team await tomorrow's start, she has a chance to become a full-fledged legend - the first musher of either sex to win the gruelling race three years in a row.

``I know it's going to be tough,'' she said in a recent telephone interview from Alaska. ``Everybody is going to be gunning for me, wanting to knock me off my throne. That's the way competition is supposed to be. I look forward to it. I have one of the best teams in my experience. But there are a lot of good mushers out there. If we knew the outcome now, we wouldn't have to run the race.''

Butcher has come a long way since her arrival in Alaska back in the mid-'70s. She started out with a job at a musk ox farm, but as soon as she could she went on her own. ``I was up there to mush dogs, not to make money,'' she says.

And true to her early childhood preferences, she has continued to stay as far away from city life as possible.

``The first five years I lived 'way out in the bush, away from any roads, with my nearest neighbor 50 miles away,'' she says. ``It was a culture shock just to go into Fairbanks.''

Her current home is also quite isolated - a tiny wilderness community called Eureka, where she and her husband, David Monson, operate a kennel with about 150 dogs.

``We have three neighbors within a seven-mile radius,'' she says. ``We're all mushers. In the winter, the mode of transportation is dog sled. The mail comes in 25 miles away [a little town of 100 or so residents called Manley]. That's only a two-hour mush. I can use that as a training run. The post office has a hitching post - just like in the old West, only for dogs instead of horses. It's a way of life in our neighborhood, and in a lot of Alaska.''

It's a hard life - 12 to 16 hours a day, with no letup. But Susan loves it, and the feeling she has for her dogs comes through whenever she talks about them.

``We're very close to our dogs,'' she said in Boston during one of her infrequent trips away from home recently. ``We're with them all day. That's all we do. It's all anybody up there does. I know all the dogs of my neighbors, and they know mine. It's the main topic of conversation.''