Sunday, August 6, 2006

Susan Butcher

Chances are you have no idea who Susan Butcher is. Most people in the lower forty-eight don't keep up with women who live in Alaska in remote cabins and train dogs to pull sleds. 

I first heard about her in the early eighties. She was a musher in Alaska who seemed like she would become the first female to win the Iditarod dog sled race. This was back before anybody had heard of the Iditarod except in the bars of Anchorage.

I first read about the race and Susan Butcher's chances to win it in a Sports Illustrated article which, along with People magazine, is one of two periodicals I use to keep abreast of what's happening in the real world.

In 1984 I was at one of Quaker Oats' ad agencies writing on dog food. After reading about the race, I thought the Iditarod would be a perfect opportunity for Ken-L Ration canned to re-launch itself in the face of inroads made by Purina's bags of dry stuff. Out in the wilderness it would perform well as a product so nourishing it could help a dog sled team win an 1100 mile endurance race.  Especially if Ken-L Ration also made the smart move to sponsor the team of the first woman musher who was going to win the race. And bought rounds of drinks for everybody before and after.
The eleven hundred mile race commemorates a dog sled relay that took place in 1925 when diphtheria broke out in an isolated town on the Bering Sea. The only way to get lifesaving serum to the sick people there was by dog sled in weather that was often fifty below. Twenty or so teams passed the serum from one musher to another and covered the distance in just over five days. That's around 220 miles per day.

The modern race is also 1100 miles long. But there is no relay.  It's one musher and his or her dogs against the elements and the sound of other mushers gaining on them. The teams usually run more than 100 miles a day.

With all the history, plus the possibility of a female winner, I thought this would be a great story for both PR and advertising reasons.  I wrote commercials to prove my point, with the idea of shooting Susan and the dogs all along the race. Not an inexpensive undertaking, needless to say.

But we would capture the drama, the excitement, the pain, the hardship, the heroics, and mostly the hungry dogs scarfing up the Ken-L Ration. Keep in mind that mushers have secret recipes for energizing food that often include wildlife creature parts like raccoon paws and bear's liver, so convincing any of them, let alone the singleminded, opinionated Susan Butcher, that Ken-L Ration would be a good substitute was not going to be easy. That wasn't my biggest problem, it would turn out.

At that time she lived alone out in the wilderness in a cabin with her dogs.  I was also told by people who subsequently went to interview her following the article in SI that she smelled like she lived alone out in the wilderness in a cabin with her dogs.

But I didn't care about that. I saw OPPORTUNITY for an old dog food to re-invent itself. I could make Susan Butcher a household word. A legend in her own time.

The problem was my boss was a 5'4" dead ringer for Sylvester Stallone. He wore cowboy boots, a toupee and smelled of expensive cologne. Later he would own not one, but two Ferraris. So the concept of sponsoring a female musher in a dog sled race in Alaska was not ever going to be on his radar. If it couldn't be shot in LA, I was SOL.

And, it turned out, despite the hype, Susan Butcher was not the first woman to win the Iditarod.  Surprisingly, some lesser known babe beat  her. Susan had to withdraw from the race everyone expected her to win. My boss couldn't wait to say, "Na na na na na."  He was that kind of guy.

Her team was attacked by an angry moose, which killed or maimed most of the dogs. But she is the woman race aficionados think of when the Iditarod is mentioned. Following that debacle, she went on to win the race four times, a feat equal to winning the Indy 500 four times. And those guys and occasional lady only have to drive in a circle for a couple of hours.

In fact, she won four times in the next five years, coming in second the time she lost. Not many men have achieved as much in either race, let alone a woman. So I was vindicated.

She also met a guy who had similar interests -- who knew?  They got married and had two children, moved to a larger cabin in the wilderness, and continued to raise and race their dogs. 

I recently learned she had contracted leukemia, despite being so far away from people, pollution and packages of junk food.

This week when she passed awayat 51, she had become important enough to be mentioned on George Stephanopoulos' show.

Somehow she managed to become a legend without any help from me. I was very sorry to hear she died.


ksquester said...

So glad you brought this to our attention.  She was one hell of a woman!! Anne

ladeeoftheworld said...

I was sad to hear about her too.  I could live in the cold wilderness with a pack of dogs.  Actually, I already do.  

Inspirational lady!

ally123130585918 said...

I have never heard of her ~ but she seemed an exceptional woman ~ and I enjoyed reading about her life ~ without knowing her I am saddened to learn of her death and 51 is a very young age to die ~ Ally

swibirun said...

I read about her passing and was also sad.  I remember her victories and I lived in sunny Florida.  I remember it being a big deal on the nightly news.

I didn't remember the part about being attacked by the moose.  Maybe Rocky The Flying Squirrel had faulty intelligence and told Bullwinkle that her sled team was carrying WMD' know, Weapons of Moose Destruction, so it was a pre-emptive attack.

Boris and Natasha

gailmb said...

Knew of her, saw her (and her dogs) in Alaska once, and was saddened by her death.
Thanks for letting a few more people know of her existence.