She has said that this year's Iditarod could possibly be her last. It may well be the hardest for her to win, too. Her competitors, particularly Swenson, aren't thrilled with the prospect of her becoming the first five-time Iditarod champ. Even more so than in years past, they will all be gunning for her. Meanwhile, life in the bush is more complicated than she would like it to be. Plopped among the four one-room log cabins and 120 doghouses at Butcher's Trail Breaker Kennels in Eureka are a white satellite dish and three unreliable diesel generators that power a telephone, a fax machine and a stereo system. Inside the cabin that serves as living room and kitchen, the electronic gadgets share close quarters with a wood stove, a sofa, a desk, a dining table and chairs.
Win or lose, Butcher has talked about retiring from racing this year and downsizing the communications station. The stereo will stay because Ray Charles, Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix and radio newscasters are welcome intruders. But Butcher intends to raise a family far away from telephones and fax machines. "Our life is getting to the point where there is too much going on for us to be able to do things exactly the way we want," Butcher says. "There are times when I'm just about to flip out and I tell David, 'This is crazy. I've won the race and done what I wanted to do, and I continue to be successful. So why is my life worse now that I have won?' "
This is Butcher's state of mind as she emerges from the doorless outhouse 10 yards east of the main cabin, zipping her fly. Butcher is a handsome woman who wears her hair in two waist-length braids, and whose fresh-scrubbed complexion and soft features belie the 16 years that she has spent fighting subzero temperatures and razor-sharp winds. Dressed in black dungarees, a cotton T-shirt and knee-high rubber boots, she heads from the outhouse to her dogs. They are her antidote for high-tech stress. Butcher's bond with the dogs is forged at the moment of their birth, when they slide from the womb into her cradled hands. Hers is the first human voice they hear, the first face they see. From that day on, she is their best friend.
Butcher warms to strangers slowly. At times she has a look that makes her seem cool and aloof, but around her friends, particularly those of the canine persuasion, she is gregarious and animated. She steps into the pen that houses about eight newborn pups, and her face beams with a childlike joy as she kneels on the straw-covered ground to cuddle each pup. Then she turns and praises Dobro, one of the mothers. "You did such a good job, I'm so proud of you," she says, sounding very much like a mom herself.
Like the 13 other citizens of Eureka, a mining and mushing enclave 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Butcher likes the quiet life among her dogs, which is far from the chaos and confinement of city living. Indoor plumbing isn't essential, and neither are paved roads. But she couldn't live without the creek that runs through her backyard or the rugged mountain ranges and fields of aspen, birch and spruce that surround her. Surveying her version of paradise, she says, "This is what I want in life, to live out here in the bush."
As Butcher strolls past the door of the kitchen cabin, where three of her four Iditarod championship plaques are displayed, a dozen 3-month-old pups gather at the fence of their pen, eagerly awaiting her arrival. She is barely inside the gate before they start milling around her legs and tugging at her jeans, imploring her to bend over and receive a mass face-licking. She obliges. "Yes, yes, I'm happy to see you, too," she says. She lingers to play with Chomolungma, the pup she rescued from the creek. "There's a special bond between me and this little guy," she says as she pats him. Then she heads over to a group of 50 older dogs chained to wooden posts beside their houses. They bark and howl as she approaches. The 20 strongest and smartest among this group will be the ones on this year's Iditarod team. She stops to chat with Rock and Heifer before moving on.
How does she remember the names of all 150 dogs? "It's easy when you know them," she says. "Like having 150 kids."
Butcher's unique training—she has worked as a veterinary technician and a midwife to musk-oxen—comes in handy. The nearest vets are three hours away, in Fairbanks, and they don't make house calls to the bush. So Butcher draws blood, takes urine samples, conducts physicals and administers vaccinations to all of her dogs. She has developed a keen eye for canine disease symptoms and treats minor ailments herself, even if it means sitting up all night with an ailing husky. "My training helped me with the practical stuff, but I had a sense of what dogs needed before I knew anything about mushing," she says.
Butcher rises at six o'clock in the morning to care for the dogs that are vying for spots on her race team. For the next 17 hours, she feeds them, fetches their water, plays with them, takes them on training runs and massages their sore muscles afterward. When she's at a race, away on one of her many speaking engagements or meeting with her sponsors, her three kennel assistants take over the feeding and watering. But only Butcher trains the top dogs. "When I'm mushing, or caring for the dogs or picking up after them, I am in total contentment," she says. "I have found something that was made for me." There are also strategic reasons for the time she spends with them. "I want the dogs to see me doing everything for them," she says. "They have to trust me and know that I care about them and that I won't ask them to do something they aren't capable of."
Butcher scours books about marathon running for new training ideas. She picks the brains of the champion athletes she meets at awards ceremonies and then uses herself as a guinea pig for new training techniques before trying them on her dogs. Butcher says she knows what her dogs are thinking by the way they bark and behave. But even she can't always tell when the training is too taxing for them. "They love it so much, they won't ever let you know they're too tired or they don't want to go on," she says.