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Jonrowe, however, believes the sniping has more to do with Butcher's success than with her sex. "Every one of the serious competitors believes the person on top doesn't deserve to be there," Jonrowe says. "I'm not sure being a woman has anything to do with it."
One thing is certain: The Iditarod is no place for wimps of either gender. The race is named for the trail that mushers used in the early 1900s to take gold out of, and to bring mail and supplies into, Iditarod and other now-deserted mining towns. The race always begins in Anchorage the first weekend in March and ends approximately two weeks and 1,100 miles later, in Nome. (In 1925, 19 mushers used 674 miles of the trail to relay diphtheria serum from Nenana to Nome, where an epidemic raged.) Mushers gather two nights before the race to draw times for the staggered-start event, which takes them over jagged mountain ranges, across frozen rivers, through dense forests, along desolate tundra, into ghost towns and beside miles of windswept coast. It is an isolating experience requiring unshakable determination and confidence.
With more than half the race still ahead of them, the mushers enter the bleak and treacherous Farewell Burn, a 40-mile black spruce forest blighted by a 1977 fire. Racers often hit the Burn at night and must find their way through an obstacle course of trenches, water holes and burned tree stumps with only their headlamps and lead dogs to guide them.
The conditions can be bitter, but Butcher is used to them. An hour into the 1982 race, her sled crashed into a tree, bruising her and injuring four of her 15 dogs. Eight hours later, a violent snowstorm wiped out the trail, and Butcher, trying to find her way through the wind and cold, veered 10 miles off course. Several days later, stranded for 52 hours by an eyelash-freezing storm at the Shaktoolik checkpoint near the Norton Sound, she chopped firewood in 80-mph winds amid 30-foot snowdrifts. That year, she finished second. In the 1985 Iditarod, she held off a pregnant moose for 20 minutes one night, waving and poking an ax as the starving animal kicked and stomped her team. Fortunately, Dewey Halverson, another competitor, came along and shot the irate moose, but not before it had killed two dogs, injured 13 others and bruised Butcher's shoulder. She dropped out of the race at that point.
Because of sleep deprivation, Butcher has been known to hallucinate during the race about trees that aren't there, among other things. But the psych-out ploys other mushers try don't rattle her. Halverson and Jerry Austin decided to run their teams together at the start of the 1987 race, apparently figuring two heads were better at concocting a winning strategy than one. They also thought that having two teams racing together would spur the dogs to run faster. Their idea was to build a lead that no one would be able to overcome and to sucker those who tried into overtaxing their teams. Uppermost in their minds was Butcher, whose dogs typically kick about 25 miles from the finish. Said Halverson, "I don't want to be sprinting to Nome against her." Butcher ignored them, and as the tandem's teams lost steam, hers grew stronger. When it became clear their strategy had failed and that the race had come down to Butcher and Swenson, it was Austin who said snidely, "Rick better be fast, or they'll be saying 'Come to Alaska—where men are men and women are men.' "
Butcher has always been fiercely independent. Her father, Charlie, remembers seeing the signs early: "She was always a very determined child. There wasn't much chance of Susan's being pushed around. She and her sister, Kate, were strong-willed. They'd both leave home and stay away for long periods of time whenever they felt like it. But I loved that determination and independence. They're great things to have."
Susan was drawn to the wilderness even back then, writing grammar school essays about hating cities and loving the country. But Susan does recall some happy moments in Cambridge, Mass., where she grew up. "The exciting days would be when Mother Nature somehow made herself known," she says. "If we had a horrible rainstorm or snowstorm or lightning or thunder, I loved it. I'd spend the whole time outside running around in it."
Heredity and environment. Charlie, chairman of his family's chemical-products company, and Agnes, a psychiatric social worker, were progressive thinkers and permissive parents to Susan and Kate, who is a year older. (Susan also had an older brother, Evan, who died of leukemia in 1953, at age 3½.) Charlie, who loved sailing and carpentry, didn't subscribe to the notion that there were some things girls just didn't do. He taught his daughters to sail and bought them each a set of adult carpentry tools before they were teenagers. The three of them spent a couple of years trying to restore an old sailboat hull he had bought for $25. They never made it seaworthy, but the girls eagerly shared their father's passion.
At 16, Susan applied to a boat-building school in Maine but was rejected, she says, because of her gender. "A lot of people said I should have sued," she says. "But that would have been a lose-lose situation for everyone, because they wouldn't have wanted me there and I would have felt uncomfortable. I decided to learn it elsewhere and do it better than they ever thought it could be done."
The Butcher brand of independence and intensity that serves Susan so well in long-distance sled-dog racing has often made her a difficult person to work for—and with. Counselors at a summer work camp praised young Susan's diligence, but fellow campers, whom she said "lolly-gagged around and leaned on their shovels," disliked her. It was the same story years later when she worked summers at an Alaskan salmon factory in the Eskimo village of Emmonak, at the mouth of the Yukon River. Some coworkers resented her for making them look bad by decapitating fish at a breakneck clip.