Top Women in Dog Mushing

Living in Alaska, we are fortunate enough to see some of the top sled dog teams in the sport. The Iditarod, is one of the only major sporting events in the world where women compete right along side their male counterparts and history is replete with some amazing stories about famous women mushers. 

As the saying, “Where Men are Men and Women Win the Iditarod,” was a slogan carried on one popular T-shirt at the time. Butcher won her last championship in 1990. No woman has won since, although DeeDee Jonrowe came close, finishing second in 1993 and 1998, so in honor of International Women’s Day we share the Top Women in Mushing (at least from an Alaska perspective). 

This is Women’s History Month, and as the dog mushers continue to cross under the burled arches of Nome, it seems fitting to look at not 1, but 2 trailblazing women who broke the glass ceiling, or rather those famed arches.

The year was 1985. The already cold Alaskan winter weather had taken a turn. 64 dog mushers with their teams of 14-18 dogs had started the famed, sometimes brutal Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The Iditarod is a 1,152-mile race across the spectacular but unforgiving Alaskan wilderness. Competitors endure 100 mph skin-ripping winds, blinding snow, and temperatures reaching 70 degrees below zero.

 

Susan Butcher, a strong female musher who had been competing in the Iditarod since 1978, had finished second the previous year and favored to win as the first woman to win the Iditarod, was feeling confident and had an early, solid lead.

 

Fellow female musher Libby Riddles, who had previously competed in 2 Iditarod races and was virtually unknown, believed she was off to a bad start. Tossed from her sled and flying through the air in the first hour of the 1985 Iditarod, it wasn’t looking good. Her dogs had taken a wrong turn, crashing her sled into discarded washing machine parts and ejecting her into mid-air. When she knocked into the ground, her dogs dragged her face-down through the snow.

Race officials to stop the competition twice because unusually terrible weather made it was impossible for aircraft to deliver the dogs’ food to more distant checkpoints. As a result, leading mushers stopped in a village checkpoint, staying together. Riddles seized the moment and set out on the risky trail beyond Shaktoolik, not realizing at that moment, she had just taken over first place.

Butcher had an early lead after checking into the fifth checkpoint, when tragedy struck. An angry moose staggered into her path, became entangled in the team’s harnesses. After a frantic few minutes, while Butcher fought off the moose with her ax and parka, another musher came along and put the moose down. But the damage had been done-the moose killed two dogs and injured thirteen. Butcher was forced to drop out of the race.

Riddles faced her own set of obstacles, including dehydration and fatigue, illnesses among her dogs, treacherous ground conditions, and her renegade dogs made a break, hijacking her sled-without her in it. Riddles would later be reunited with her wayward dog team. One night, when visibility vanished she zipped herself into her sleeping bag and spent an anxious night alone in the wilderness, only to find bag’s zipper had frozen shut.

Nevertheless, she persevered and on March 20, 1985, Riddles won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, becoming the first woman to do so. Her trek lasted 18 days, 20 minutes and seven seconds, nothing like the record-setting times seen today. She and her other competitors traveled through dense forest, up and down rugged mountain ranges, hellish cliffs, across frozen rivers and lakes, through uninviting and lonely tundra and along the windy coastline.

While Butcher had to scratch the 1985 Iditarod, she too persevered. A disciplined and fearless adventurer, she would return to race the following year and emerge the winner. She continued triumphing, becoming the first person to win three consecutive Iditarod championships, from 1986 to 1988, and again in 1990.

Butcher lived with her husband, fellow dog sled racer David Monson, in the remote area of Eureka, where they raised two daughters and a pack of wonderful sled dogs. For many years after her retirement from competition, she owned and operated Trail Breaker Kennel, first in Eureka, and later in Fairbanks. In 2006, she died of leukemia at the age of 51. She has become a dog sledding legend and is considered one of the greatest athletes of her generation. Following her death, Alaska has honored her. In 2008, the state legislature established Susan Butcher Day, to be observed on the first Saturday of March each year. Later that year, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks announced the creation of the Susan Butcher Institute, to develop public service and leadership skills among young Alaskans.

Riddles’ victory as the first woman to win to win the Iditarod, remains an important moment in Iditarod history. In 1985, she received the Women’s Sports Foundation’s designation as Sports Woman of the Year. She continued racing for about 20 years, then turned her attention to breeding and training dogs. Her website reports that she currently has 28 sled dogs and is a speaker on Princess Cruises’ Alaskan voyages.

Riddles and Butcher are in outstanding company of female dog mushers, including Mary Shields and Lolly Medley, the first 2 women to compete in the Iditarod in 1974; Rachael Scdoris who was the first legally blind dog musher to finish the race in 2006; and powerhouse mushers DeeDee Jonrowe and Aliy Zirkle, both competing in dozens of Iditarod races and both finishing second multiple times. But that’s another story for another day.

Originally published in 2022. Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Katie Stavick at katie.stavick@frontiersman.com