GIVING THE DOGSLED CHAMPION HER DUE

Once again, I am late getting around to Susan Butcher. It has happened before. The first time was 15 years ago in Alaska. I was there to cover the Iditarod dogsled race, the only reporter from the continental states to do so. Butcher was about the only name anyone had ever heard of, mostly because 1) she was a woman, 2) she had won the Iditarod four of the previous five years, and 3) who knows anything about dogsled racing?

But I delayed getting to her because, frankly, I was intimidated. I had heard she did not suffer fools well, and I felt like a fool among all the dogs and snow. I also heard that she did not suffer humans well. She prefers “dogs to people,” one musher said. Another local told me, “You don’t have enough fur.”

When I finally did meet Susan Butcher, it was just before the race began, at a veterinarian’s office on the edge of Anchorage. I was introducing myself to her husband, Dave Monson, and she pushed through the door and asked him to “braid my hair.” It wasn’t the opening line I expected from a woman rumored to be tougher than leather, a woman who had once held an angry moose at bay with a stick for half an hour, until another musher came along and shot it.

That kind of stuff happens in the Iditarod. You get used to it.

An embarrassing moment on the trail

Anyhow, when she finally did speak to me, she talked about … basketball. She talked about maybe naming one of her dogs “Isiah” after Isiah Thomas. She talked about wanting children. She talked about taking the phone out of her cabin in the tiny town of Eureka – which at the time had 11 people – because her life was getting too hectic.

Mostly she spoke with her dogs. They seemed to have a private communication. Her voice went soft and girlish with them, she nuzzled them, she caressed them. There were more dogs there than I could count, yet she knew every name. She spoke of their strength and heroism on the trail. Unlike most sports, where the athlete pounds his chest, dog mushers realize that their two feet are useless if the four-feeters aren’t getting it done.

I left Butcher that day feeling I had met a tough, unique, passionate individual. I wrote a column about her strange ways. I figured it would run in Detroit and that was that.

More than a week later, deep into the 1,150-mile race, I came upon her late at night, around a campfire. She was tending to her team, feeding the dogs tiny chunks of meat. It was cold beyond freezing. Smoke came from our breath.

“So,” she said, spotting me, “I like dogs better than humans?”

I gulped. She grinned and walked away. It was only then I found out that my columns had been picked off a wire service and were running daily in the Anchorage newspaper. She’d read everything.

Dominating the men of the wilderness

It was in another newspaper last week that I read Susan Butcher had died.

She was only 51. Leukemia. People who knew her seemed stunned, as if they expected her to beat the disease the way she beat blinding snowstorms, dangerous moose and the husky men who raced against her. True enough, she tried a risky move against her illness, a stem-cell transplant.

But the cancer won. She left behind her husband and the children she told me she planned to have – two daughters, 11 and 6. And, of course, all those dogs.

I never went back to the Iditarod. I never got to tell her, or the readers of this column, that she was more historic than we ever acknowledged. Long before attractive young golfers such as Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie made news playing against men, Susan Butcher was beating men regularly. She outlasted and outsmarted them in the toughest of competitions. She even inspired a T-shirt I still own: “Alaska – Where Men Are Men And Women Win The Iditarod.”

She revolutionized her sport. She honed a legacy of caring for the dogs above all else. And she died too soon.

Obituaries are supposed to come quickly after death. So once again, I’m behind on this amazing woman. Then again, Susan Butcher was a few steps ahead of all of us.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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