"Haw!" The command shattered the silence of the southern Alaskan bush.
It was midwinter 1977, and the nearest human being was some 50 miles away. Lead dog Tekla and 14 other huskies were pulling Susan Butcher on a sled across a frozen river when, suddenly, the leader disobeyed her musher's order to veer left, opting to head right—away from the trail. Butcher was annoyed and perplexed.
We were in the Wrangell Mountains on a trail we'd been traveling on all winter long. For no reason at all, Tekla kept trying to go off the trail. She had never done anything wrong before, and I couldn't understand why she was disobeying me. But I let her go. Then, just as we pulled to the side, the trail collapsed into the river. She had a sixth sense that saved our lives. That day I learned that the wilderness is their domain. The dogs know more about it than I do, and I'm better off trusting their instincts.
On a late-summer afternoon 13 years later, Butcher and about a dozen pups were standing on a glacier in Eureka Creek, 155 miles from Fairbanks and about a mile from her house. As she watched the waters swirl around them, one pup, Chomolungma, slipped on the slick block of ice and fell into the water. Butcher laughed with delight.
I was laughing and telling him how clumsy he was. But then I saw that he was being sucked under the glacier. I knew that if I dove in to rescue him, I probably would be sucked under, too. So it was a question of my life or his. But then the current turned for a moment and he came back toward me. I reached in and grabbed him. He was so happy when I pulled him out, he was jumping all over me and licking me. He knew I had saved his life.
Trust and loyalty. This symbiotic relationship between Butcher and her dogs is the biggest reason why, at the age of 36, she is considered the finest long-distance sled-dog racer ever and one of the greatest mushers of all time.
"Those dogs believe they can do anything because Susan believes they can," says Dee Dee Jonrowe, who's a friend of Butcher's and the winner of the 1989 500-mile-long John Beargrease race.
"Her animals respect her because they've gone through the mill with her," says Pam Redington, a sprint-dog kennel owner in Manley Hot Springs, Alaska, and Butcher's longtime friend.
In the 1,157-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which begins on March 2, Butcher will be the one to beat. For those who've lost count, she has won the race in four of the last five years, 1986, '87, '88 and '90, and she holds the Iditarod speed record of 11 days, 1 hour, 53 minutes and 23 seconds. At the beginning of this season, she held records in four other races: the Norton Sound 250, the Kobuk 220, the Kusko 300 and the Beargrease. The only other person to win four Iditarods is Rick Swenson, who prevailed in 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1982.
Butcher's success in this demanding and macho pursuit has made her a sports icon, not to mention a walking conglomerate. On this August afternoon in Eureka, the phone hasn't stopped ringing since she and her husband, David Monson, returned from a meeting they had with sponsors in Colorado 20 hours ago. Butcher is a week behind schedule for conditioning her dog teams. It is a predicament that she does not relish.