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THE DOGGED PURSUIT OF EXCELLENCE
Sonja Steptoe
February 11, 1991
Susan Butcher is mushing towards record fifth win in the Iditarod race
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February 11, 1991

The Dogged Pursuit Of Excellence

Susan Butcher is mushing towards record fifth win in the Iditarod race

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"I thought the other people were lazy," says Butcher as she looks out of the window of the main cabin at one of the three cabins she has thrown together during the 11 years she has lived in Eureka. The cabin she is in, which has a wood stove and a telephone, was a blacksmith's shop during the gold rush in the early 1900s. Butcher built the others—a guest cabin, a cabin for the handlers and a cabin she and Monson sleep in—primarily by herself. She also built the frame structure that serves as headquarters for Trail Breaker Kennels. In her spare time she fed the dogs, hauled water from the creek, and hunted and trapped moose, caribou and sheep for supper. "I don't like to talk, I like to work," she says.

"Some would say Susan's a tough boss," says 18-year-old Tonya Schlentner, one of Butcher's assistants. "But she expects more of herself than she does from any of us." Schlentner, a tomboyish strawberry blonde, is tonight's chef at the kennel. Schlentner keeps one eye on the vat of dog chow she's mixing with water and the other eye on the dogs' main course—beef and commercial dog food in its own gravy—stewing in a pot in a nearby galvanized-tin hut. "Anyway," Schlentner says, "I think it's good to expect a lot out of yourself."

Agnes and Charlie Butcher once thought their younger daughter might become a country veterinarian. "Susan is more comfortable with animals than she is with most people," says her father, repeating an often-repeated refrain. "Animals are more emotionally honest. She loves that quality in them."

At age eight, after writing an essay for school titled "I Hate the City," Butcher wanted to tear down her parents' home near Radcliffe College and build—you guessed it—a tiny log cabin. She thought there should be more room for grass. Summers spent at the family's house on Eggemoggin Reach, in Brooklin, Maine, delighted Susan, who frolicked there, amid grass, trees, sand and surf, with Ca-bee, the family mutt. "I needed that space and freedom," she says. "I wasn't a child who was very needy of other people, and I liked my time alone."

Because of a mild case of dyslexia, diagnosed in junior high school, Susan struggled through English classes and received almost constant tutoring in that subject. The dyslexia still occasionally affects her. When she gets tired during a race, she says, it takes a little longer to do the simple math required to calculate how big a lead she has or how far she's behind. So, though she loved animals, got A's and B's in science, and studied college-level math during her years at Warehouse Cooperative School near Cambridge, a college pre-vet curriculum was more than she wanted to deal with.

Besides, she was more interested in her high school class's rowing expeditions in Boston Harbor and in her first husky, Maganak. She and Kate, who is an expert sailor and a professional carpenter in Blue Hill, Maine, were determined teens who left home for good after high school. At 17, Susan headed to Boulder, Colo., to be with animals and build houses, boats or whatever she could. Agnes, who celebrated her 70th birthday in Bedford, Mass., last August, wasn't always elated with Susan's decisions, but she took a social worker's view of her daughter's strong will. "I believe in letting a child become what he is, instead of imposing on him what you believe he should be," she says.

Agnes's instincts were right. Susan's burning desire was to live with animals in the wilderness, but the time she spent in Boulder helped her formulate the plans that led her to Alaska. In Boulder she met a woman who bred and raced sled dogs and a veterinarian who hired her as his assistant. And while poring over a mushing magazine one day in 1973, she read about the inaugural running of the Iditarod. She decided that that was what she wanted to do. Two years later, Butcher and her two cats were on their way to Fairbanks, where she planned to work on a University of Alaska project to save endangered musk-oxen, and to practice dog mushing. Within four months, she had bought three dogs—including Tekla, who died last August at 15½. She packed up the dogs and cats, along with a sack of flour, a giant slab of bacon and an economy-sized jar of peanut butter, and trekked into the southern Alaskan bush, in the Wrangell Mountains. There, she lived in a small log cabin, chopped firewood, hauled water from a creek, hunted meals in the woods and mushed her dogs. For two years she lived in virtual isolation, venturing to Fairbanks during the summers, where she earned $600 working as a midwife on the musk-ox farm. In 1977 she followed the musk-ox project west to Unalakleet.

That's where she met Joe Redington St., who had an exceptional kennel. Butcher was broke and in need of two dogs to complete her team for the 1978 Iditarod. So she agreed to train young dogs for Redington, in exchange for two huskies and a tent in the woods at his kennel in Knik, a village 18 miles north of Anchorage. Over the years, Redington has bred many of his dogs with Butcher's and with those of other mushers. The result of one such cross was Granite, with whom she won the Iditarod in 1986, '87 and '88.

Redington, a 74-year-old Oklahoma native who never finished the sixth grade, is a legend in Alaska, having logged more than 160,000 miles across the state with his sled-dog team, often rescuing survivors from wrecked bush planes. In 1948, he first saw the Iditarod Trail, fell in love with it and set about organizing the contest known as The Last Great Race on Earth. As soon as Redington saw how hard Butcher worked, he knew she would someday be an Iditarod champion. "No matter what she's doing, it doesn't take long before she can do it as good as, or better than, anybody else," he says.

In 1977, Redington convinced two Anchorage television stations to film a swim-suit-clad Butcher bathing in a frozen lake. The news peg, presumably, was how a future Iditarod winner stays clean. "I just chopped a hole in the ice the way I always did and jumped in, and they filmed it," Butcher says, laughing at the memory. "It worked. The publicity helped me get my first sponsor." She entered the 1978 Iditarod and finished 19th.

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