August 29, 2006 by

Susan Butcher


Categories: Sports

sbutcher.jpgSusan Howlet Butcher, a champion musher who won The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race four times, died on Aug. 5 of leukemia. She was 51.

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.

Listen to a Tribute From NPR

[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.]

18 Responses to Susan Butcher

  1. caryl pearson

    i always thought she was really great, she was one of my heroes. i went to colorado in 1973 like she did, and in the fall of 1974, worked with a lady who raced siberian huskies – her name was Marion Burns. if anybody out there knows, could you tell me if Susan knew this lady? i wish i could have known Susan personally. also, i went to alaska the same year she did, 1975. i only spent one summer there though. i was shocked and so sorry to hear that she had died. i am saying prayers for her spirit and her family left here on earth, including her dogs.

  2. Martha

    I did not realize that we, as a nation, had lost one of the finest women athletes. My children and I were in Alaska in 1990 and got to meet her-by accident at a grocery store. We, being from the far southwest (New Mexico), had never seen anything like Alaska. Susan was a great representative of the great state. Her loss to my family was a shock, you just don’t think anyone like Susan can get sick. I send my prayers to her family. Just remember her spirit will always be with you. She will never leave you, so when you feel that hand on your shoulder, and no one is there, just remember its Susan, supporting you in every way. God Bless you all.

  3. Adrienne Kaufmann

    Where have I been? Obviously not paying attention to news that mattered. Here in Watertown, SD, I learned of Susan’s death yesterday when I went to the Iditarod site. My heart is saddened beyond words. One day in heaven I will meet this woman who has been a heroine of mine for many years. I have played over and over her interview on the trail last year. She is radiant. She has radiated that goodness to me. Be blessed by letting the fullness of love she now shares with God overflow into your lives. From that star, which is a window into heaven, she shines forth to let you know she is happy, and is loving you more than ever. With sincere sympathy and prayers for your strength. Adrienne Kaufmann

  4. Mekare

    I am very sorry to hear about Mrs. Butcher’s death i hope her family knows thet she is probably looking after her at this very moment. Give my best to the butcher family.from the waite family

  5. ginnie

    I was very sorry to hear about Susan’s death, I was at a Win-Some Women Christian retreat a few years ago on Mackinaqc Island and one of
    the keynote speakers was a woman who had raced and won the Iditarod . I am sorry to say that I can’t remember her name but I am sure it is the same Susan Butcher. If anyone knows about this event at Mackinac Island Michigan and if indeed it was Susan would you please post your response ? Thank you

  6. Jack Boomboom

    susan butcher was my idol, i was inlove with her. i wish that i could tell her how much of an impact she made on my life. i hope that she may rest in peace. and i hope that she knows that she will ALWAYS be remembered! i know that you watch down on me everyday. we were bestfriends. well, i misss you and i love you susan, and i’ll see you up there soon.

  7. brandy schade

    I picked up the book ‘Body & Soul’ yesturday from Parson’s the New School library in New York; being born & raised in Alaska I recognized Susan Butcher on the cover of the book. Having just finished the book I googled her & was saddend to learn of her passing. When Susan raced I was a girl and it was so great to grow up in a time when women were winning the Ididarod. The saying at that time was “Men are Men and Women win the Ididarod.” Her wining gave girls / women in an environment where there is 10 men to every 1 woman a feeling that although out numbered we could beat the odds. From my reading Susan really had a great perspective on how to live and she really respected animals.

  8. bailie

    if any one still looks at this website, i’m doing a report on susan butcher and absolutly fell in love with her life story. i was shocked to see she had died althou her legacy still lives on. susan has really impacted me, you can ask my mother she threatens every day to through me out because i talk about her so much. i long to live in the country or even in alaska. death effects everyone wether you realize it or not, cases are always different but they still effect everyone.
    P.S. to susans family she was a great person you should be proud

  9. read

    i knew susan for about 3 years and she has been such a great to me i was sad when i learned of her passing we use to operate Trail Breaker Kennel together susan has been my dearest friend and i’ll never forget her rest in peace my dear freind

  10. Sunny

    I just went to Anchorage and Denali National Park for a 9-day trip on my own and I was so inspired by Mt. McKinley and Susan! I want to do more outdoors! I saw her picture at the Anchorage International Airport. This is a women who “found peace in the wilderness of Alaska”. Same here! Best wishes to Susan’s family and all people fighting blood cancers!!!

  11. Natalie

    i am doing a report on susan butcher and think she is amazing. i love animals and the nature as much as she did. i want to work with animals when i grow up, too.
    -natalie (11)

  12. D Ray East

    I met Susan in 1982. It was a very brief meeting but to me memorable due to the fact she loved her dogs so much. I remember being introduced to her dogs as though they were people and persons of great renown. Which as they were her very life line. They were that important to her and to others as well. I am glad to know that a large part of her is still with us in the Husband and two wonderful Daughters she left behind but not forgotten.
    Thank you Susan for being so wonderful to all who met you.

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