Although Butcher was raised in Cambridge, Mass., she always yearned to live in the country. When she was 8 years old, she even wrote an essay for school titled “I Hate the City.” Butcher didn’t like how stressful it felt to live in urban areas and longed to trek off into the wilderness. At 20, she did just that, moving to a remote log cabin in Alaska and teaching herself to become a professional musher, dog breeder and trainer.
“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 50 years before or 100 years before, where I could have been a pioneer. That’s all there is to it. I was born with the pioneering spirit,” Butcher once said.
Butcher made headlines in 1978 when she tackled the Iditarod, a 1,152-mile journey across the Alaskan tundra. The grueling competition forces participants to endure winds of up to 100 mph, sleep deprivation, wild animals, artic blizzards and avalanches. Being a woman in a male-dominated sport, Butcher also faced isolation and anger from her male counterparts. Undaunted, Butcher completed 17 Iditarods, winning in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1990. The only time she didn’t finish the sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome was in 1985 when a crazed moose attacked her team and killed two of her animals.
Despite critics’ claims that the Iditarod harms its dog participants, Butcher considered them her friends, family and workmates. She personally trained her dogs and always included them in the winner circle. Butcher was even known to walk in front of her team in non-racing situations to lead them through bad snow storms. The dogs loved her as well. At one point during a training session, Butcher fell through the ice. The team of canines rallied and pulled her to safety.
Butcher competed in her last Iditarod in 1994, then she and her husband David Monson, a one-time lawyer and fellow dog musher, decided to start a family. Her post-competition years were spent caring for their two daughters, Tekla and Chisana, and breeding, raising and training sled dogs. She also assisted the media as a color-commentator for the Iditarod and served as an outspoken advocate for wildlife and the environment. Her racing adventures were chronicled in a 1993 children’s book and in an Emmy Award-winning documentary.
Butcher was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in 2005. Within weeks of the public announcement of her illness, more than 1,000 people registered with the National Bone Marrow Registry to help find her a donor. Butcher underwent chemotherapy treatment and was in remission last May when she received a stem-cell transplant. She then developed graft-versus-host-disease, a condition in which the transplanted cells attacked her digestive system. Further tests showed that her leukemia had also returned.
In the final days of her life, Butcher and her husband penned an online journal to keep fans and friends up-to-date on her condition. A memorial service in celebration of her life is scheduled for Sept. 2 on the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks.
[Update March 14, 2007: Butcher’s ashes will be scattered at a place called “Old Woman,” between Kaltag and Unalakleet on the Iditarod trail. Butcher was also made the honorary musher at the ceremonial start of this year’s race.]