This month’s Alaska magazine is their annual Iditarod issue. It has a number of really great articles about the race and some of the personalities involved in it. Including one on Susan Butcher, who, as most of you know, lost her battle with cancer earlier this year and will, no doubt be on the mind of most Iditarod mushers has they trek to Nome. She was a legend and a role model for all mushers and women around the world.
The article focused on the 1991 Iditarod and her epic struggle against rival Rick Swenson for a 5th victory.
The story is the stuff of legends. Both Rick and Susan were 4 time champions of the race – and they both wanted that 5th win. Both stayed near the front of the pack for the entire race, but as they moved along the coast, it was obvious that Susan had the faster team and she left White Mountain with an all but insurmountable lead.
The thing about this sport is that it is played on a huge playing field. One so vast and wild that it becomes another player in the game – and that’s what happened in ’91 – Alaska threw everything she had at the combatants and turned it into a real dog race!
The final outcome is a story that most mushers can tell – Rick and Sue came across each other in the storm and traveled together for a number of hours, struggling hard for every foot of ground. At one point they stopped so Susan could help Rick change a bulb on his headlamp. When they pulled their hooks that time, they became separated by the weather. Susan eventually turned back – Rick kept moving forward and went on to become the race’s most winning driver.
Next to Libby Riddle’s 1985 win, it is my favorite Iditarod story – and what makes it extra special for me is that I remember it unfolding. Although it was in the day before the Internet, the race still received some coverage on the major sports programs.
I had been an Iditarod fan for a number of years, but at this point I now had my own little dog team and was taking a much bigger interest in it then ever before.
Our news had a little piece on the race claiming that Susan Butcher had left White Mountain on the way to achieving her 5th Iditarod victory. Cool, I thought, as I pulled the covers up and tucked myself into my warm bed.
The next Iditarod report I heard was one announcing Rick Swenson as the ’91 Iditarod Champion and the race’s first 5-time winner. Now this was a sporting event that really made me sit up and take notice – I was hooked even more!
Now, here we are 16 years later. Sadly, Susan is gone, but Rick is still racing – and no smart competitor ever takes his or her eye off him. Three of the mushers racing this year have 4 wins each under their belts – Jeff King, Martin Buser and Doug Swingley. All three are still in their prime and maybe this year will see another legendary Iditarod drama unfold along the trail to Nome.
What makes it really special for me is that should it happen, I won’t be listening for details of it on my TV at home – and I won’t be snuggled in my warm bed as it happens – I’ll be out there on the trail – living it and breathing it. Although I won’t be contending for the win, I’ll be part of the event and that just boggles my mind.
How in the heck did that happen??
Certainly, I better then anyone understand the mechanics of getting here. I mean I’ve lived, eaten and breathed this sport and this race for a good number of years. I know one dog led to two, led to ten, led to twenty, etc, etc. A 4-mile race led to a 6-mile race, to a 54-mile race to a 300-mile race, etc. etc. I know the huge number of folks that have so generously shared their knowledge, time and cash to help us out (I started to name names, but the list was HUGE and I was so fearful I’d miss someone I stopped!). I know all that – so maybe it isn’t that I’m wondering how it happened, but that I’m in awe of the fact that it all has happened.
I am Iditarod fan and was long before I was an Iditarod musher – or even a musher, for that matter.
I still have Martin Buser’s autograph tucked away in a drawer at home. I remember exactly the first time I met Susan Butcher and Libby Riddles. I have every book and movie ever made on the race.
So, I am now just 10 days or so away from stepping into the starting chute for the seventh time – and honestly, my biggest thought is still – how cool is that????!!!
A huge Iditarod fan,