IDITAROD DIARY, CHAPTER 2: In which we meet the champion, get licked, talk basketball, and learn that even mushers get jealous.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — “Forget it. You don’t have enough fur.”
That’s what one local told me as I sought the champion of the dogsled world. “Forget it,” he laughed. “Unless you got a cold nose and four paws, you ain’t gonna get much from Susan Butcher.”
Butcher, as you may know, is the mush master, the reigning queen of the Iditarod. She has won the trans-Alaska dogsled race four of the last five years. But she hasn’t exactly gone Hollywood. She still lives in a cabin way up north, in a town of 11 people, a place called Eureka. That’s a gold miner’s way of saying, “I found it! Gold!” In Butcher’s case, the locals warned, it means, “I found it! A place with no people! Rrrrufff!”
But what the heck? Sometimes, I’m not so crazy about people either. So as I parked my car outside the veterinarian’s office on a small, snowy back road on the outskirts of Anchorage — someone tipped me that Butcher would be there — I did what any good reporter would do when hoping to interview a woman who lives with 150 dogs:
I practiced barking.
To most Americans, Butcher is a parka-clad mystery, a hard- featured, no-makeup, hair-parted-plainly-down-the-middle adventurer. “The dog lady” who wins every year. Folks don’t know much more, and they don’t care to. Maybe they see it this way: Anyone who takes a pack of dogs, by herself, out in the frozen wilderness for 11 or 12 grueling, stormy days just to try and win a race — well, we are not dealing with Cher here. This is a woman who wants to be alone.
And, surprisingly, even her fellow mushers seem happy to grant her wish. One thing you learn pretty quickly up here is that not everyone is in love with Susan Butcher. Many of the male mushers, whom she has beaten again and again, quietly resent the attention she has gotten, the “Tonight Show” appearances, the articles in Sports Illustrated. They say, “she just got lucky with some great dogs.” Or, “It’s the dogs who win the race, but in her case, because she’s a woman, she gets all the credit.” Butcher’s closest rival, Rick Swenson, the only other musher to win the Iditarod four times, had a falling out with her a few years back, and now they’re like Ali and Frazier. Swenson was once rumored to have said he would “walk from Nome to Anchorage if a woman ever beat me in this race.” In which case he needs a whole lot of boots.
But Butcher doesn’t seem to care. Or does she? Although she has easily been the most celebrated racer in the last five Iditarods, she was not the first woman to win. In 1985, she was in the lead but had to drop out of the race after a moose attacked her dogs, killing two of them. First place was eventually captured by another woman, Libby Riddles, who received enormous notoriety for breaking the male barrier. Riddles, blonde and easy-going, became a mini-celebrity. She wrote a book; she picked up precious sponsors.
Butcher stopped talking to her.
“I don’t think she ever forgave me for winning,” Riddles told me the other night. “She’s real competitive. Part of the reason people have a hard time with her is because she really does prefer dogs to people.”
Great, I figure.
Where’s my leash?
So I enter the vet’s office, and who should be sitting there but Butcher’s husband, Dave Monson, a lawyer by training, a part-time dog musher, and now, pretty much, the man in charge of Butcher’s small empire. Long haired, bearded, smart and sarcastic, Monson met his wife in the early 80’s, when he sold her some fish head scraps for her dogs. (You do what you can to make money in Alaska.) Now he is reportedly the buffer between Butcher and the outside world.
So I tell him I’m from Detroit and he says “Detroit! All the way up here, huh?” And next thing I know, Susan Butcher comes pushing through the office door, wearing a T-shirt and blue sweat pants. She ignores me and bounces to her husband.
“Hi, honey. Would you braid my hair?”
Now, this is not the opening I expected, Given all the warnings. I sort of figured Butcher would say: “Grrrrrrrrrr, yip, yip, rrrrufff!” So, what the hell? I clear my throat and tell her, too, that I have come from Detroit.
And she looks at the floor and says: “Were you with Isiah?”
She still looks down. “Were you with Isiah before coming here?”
Well, yeah, I answer. Actually, I saw Isiah at the Lakers game.
“He’s my favorite. Isiah. We should name a dog after him, Dave.”
“Yeah,” says Dave. “Isiah and maybe Joe Dumars.”
“Oh, yeah, I like Dumars, too.”
“And who’s that big mean white guy you got?”
“Bill Laimbeer?” I say?
“Yeah. We’ve got a few dogs who would fit that name. Don’t we, Sue?”
“Oh, yeah. We’ve got a couple nasty ones.”
So right off the bat, I learn several important lessons about Susan Butcher. 1) She is a basketball fan. 2) She needs help braiding her hair. 3) She names all her dogs, and we are talking hundreds here. She picks a theme for every litter — such as Russian novelists, Olympic athletes, names of rocks, and even the stars of the “Tonight Show.” (Yes, there is a Johnny Carson dog and a Doc Severinsen dog and even a Tommy Newsom dog.) And she remembers everyone.
This she proves out in the parking lot, when she introduces me to the 20 dogs she will run in this year’s Iditarod, which starts today from downtown Anchorage. “Here’s Sluggo,” she says, still not looking at me, “and here’s Hermit. And here’s Stoney. But we call him ‘Tooooooneeee! . . . Hi, boy! Yeah, Toneee . . . “
Her voice is suddenly light and free and she pushes her face against the dogs muzzle and he licks her all over.
And I figure, what Libby Riddles said is just about right.
Dogs over people.
Which is probably what makes Susan Butcher such a great musher. The art of sled-dog racing, more than anything else, is getting maximum performance from the animals. And Butcher’s dogs — admittedly well-bred and extremely well-conditioned — seem willing to go though a frozen hell for her. She has some sort of special communication going. Not only does she run with them through miles of long-distance training; not only does she work them on ropes around a huge training wheel; not only does she feed them, massage their feet, and take them on solo treks to get a better feel for their personalities; but she supposedly talks to them as if they were human. And I don’t doubt it. Butcher bonds with these dogs from the moment they are born. They drop from the womb and land in her hands. The trust begins.
Sometimes, it means the difference between life and death. Once Butcher was out on a long training run, and her lead dog kept disobeying, trying to leave the trail. Butcher trusted the dog’s instincts. Just as they pulled to the side, the trail collapsed into the river.
Hey. Let her talk to them if she wants. It beats freezing to death.
“This is what I love to do,” says Butcher, who, when she was a 12-year-old living in Cambridge, Mass., wrote an essay for school titled “I Hate the City.” “After this year’s race, I want to get the phone out of Eureka. I want to get back to concentrating just on the dogs. There’s been a lot of talk about my retiring, but that’s not true. I just may not run the Iditarod again for a while. I want to have a child, and I won’t race when I’m pregnant, obviously.
“There are some other races I want to try. Some other challenges. If I should win this Iditarod — and I will — I’ll have five, and that may be enough for a while.”
The part that catches my attention is “and I will.” She says it as if there is no doubt. I look at the dogs as they parade in and are lifted to the vet’s table. I see the way they look at her, ignoring other humans, just as she does for them.
And I figure I’d put my money on her to win. I go to tell her, but she is back with the dogs and doesn’t want to be disturbed. I leave without a good-bye.
I never get the chance to make this suggestion: When the Pistons litter arrives, name one of the dogs John Salley.
She’ll never have to do an interview again. TOMORROW: The race begins.