Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cowgirls have heroes too -- Susan Butcher Iditarod Champion

Twenty five years ago Joyce, my cowgirl wife, introduced me to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (see Iditarod history at bottom of post).  We followed it for many years on television.  Joyce found a real hero in a young woman named Susan Butcher.  We watched Susan and her dogs win the grueling 1,112 to 1,131-mile Iditarod race in 1986, 1987, 1988, and again in 1990.

When we visited Alaska a few years back Joyce made friends with every sled dog she encountered.

One of the highlights of our Alaska trip, for Joyce, was actually meeting Susan Butcher (above) and her dogs at their home near Fairbanks.

Joyce fell in love with all the dogs in Susan's compound, but especially the lead dog on the right above.

 When we got to Nome, Joyce had her picture taken with a sled dog team.

Sadly, Butcher died--all too young--on August 5, 2006 after fighting cancer for many years.  

On March 1, 2008, Susan Butcher was honored by the State of Alaska when, just prior to the start of the 2008 Iditarod, Governor Sarah Palin signed a bill establishing the first Saturday of every March as Susan Butcher Day. The day coincides with the traditional start of the Iditarod each year. Observing the special day, the bill noted, provides opportunity for people to “remember the life of Susan Butcher, an inspiration to Alaskans and to millions around the world.”

History of the Iditarod

The Iditarod has its roots in history.  In 1925, dog sleds were used to transport medicine to Nome, which was suffering a Diptheria outbreak.  Mushers led dogs up the Iditarod Trail, as Nome is icebound in winter and inaccessible by sea.  The Iditarod run was known as "the great race of mercy".  Mushers relayed the serum northward, with Gunnar Kaasen as the musher who finally delivered the serum.  His lead dog, Balto, became a folk hero, and his remains were preserved at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual sled dog team race across Alaska. Mushers and a team of 12-16 dogs (of which at least 6 must be on the towline at the finish line) cover over 1,049 miles in 9–15 days from Anchorage to Nome.

The race begins on the first Saturday in March.  The modern Iditarod began in 1973 as an event to test the best sled dog mushers and teams but evolved into today's highly competitive race.  The current fastest winning time record was set in 2011 by John Baker with a time of 8 days, 19 hours, 46 minutes, and 39 seconds.

Teams frequently race through blizzards causing whiteout conditions, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds which can cause the wind chill to reach −100 °F (−73 °C). A ceremonial start occurs in the city of Anchorage and is followed by the official restart in Willow, a city in the south central region of the state.  The restart was originally in Wasilla, but because of too little snow, the restart was permanently moved to Willow in 2008.

The trail runs from Willow up the Rainy Pass of the Alaska Range into the sparsely populated interior, and then along the shore of the Bering Sea, finally reaching Nome in western Alaska.  The trail is through a harsh landscape of tundra and spruce forests, over hills and mountain passes, and across rivers.  While the start in Anchorage is in the middle of a large urban center, most of the route passes through widely separated towns and villages, and small Athabaskan and Inupiat settlements.  The Iditarod is regarded as a symbolic link to the early history of the state and is connected to many traditions commemorating the legacy of dog mushing.

The race is the most popular sporting event in Alaska, and the top mushers and their teams of dogs are local celebrities; this popularity is credited with the resurgence of recreational mushing in the state since the 1970s.  While the yearly field of more than fifty mushers and about a thousand dogs is still largely Alaskan, competitors from fourteen countries have completed the event including the Swiss Martin Buser, who became the first international winner in 1992.

The Iditarod received more attention outside of the state after the 1985 victory of Libby Riddles, a long shot who became the first woman to win the race. Susan Butcher became the second woman to win the race and went on to dominate for half a decade. Print and television journalists and crowds of spectators attend the ceremonial start at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and D Street in Anchorage and in smaller numbers at the checkpoints along the trail.

Iditarod source:

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