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On the Iditarod Trail, recalling a mom named Susan Butcher

Jill Burke
Susan Butcher's daughters, Chisana, 11, left, and Tekla, 16 at the Kaltag school on Friday, March 9, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Tekla, 16, left, Chisana, 11, and their father Dave Monson at the Kaltag school on Friday, March 9, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Susan Butcher's daughters, Tekla, 16, left, and Chisana, 11, at the Kaltag school on Friday, March 9, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Susan Butcher's family at the Kaltag school on Friday, March 9, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Susan Butcher's daughter, Chisana, 11, at the Kaltag school on Friday, March 9, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Susan Butcher's daughters, Chisana, 11, left, and Tekla, 16 at the Kaltag school on Friday, March 9, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Dave Monson at the Kaltag school on Friday, March 9, 2012.
Loren Holmes
Susan Butcher's family's sleds and teams outside the Kaltag school on Friday, March 9, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Susan Butcher's family at the Kaltag school on Friday, March 9, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo

KALTAG -- Deep in the subzero cold of Northwest Alaska's frozen trails, a father is leading his two daughters in search of an Iditarod legend they can no longer touch, no longer hold. When Alaska lost one of its most celebrated Iditarod champions to cancer in 2006, David Monson and his children felt it most. Susan Butcher was his wife and their mother. Now, the family she left behind is looking for her in the places she loved most.

Exuberant and outgoing, 16-year-old Tekla has her mother's face, topped by pixie-short blonde hair. Eleven year-old Chisana, affectionately known in the family as "Choochy," is shy, has shoulder-length brown hair and looks more like her dad, but she shares the stubbornness the women of the family, including her big sister, are known for.

Driving their dog teams along the Yukon River out of Galena, where the journey began, they are a living tether to the woman who became a nearly unstoppable competitor in an era when the Iditarod was one of the few sports in which men and women competed against one another on equal footing.

Though too young to compete in the Iditarod, Chisana and Tekla have a connection to the race. Aliy Zirkle is the one woman with a shot at crossing the finish line first this year, something that hasn't happened in more than two decades since Butcher's fourth and final victory in 1990. If she wins, Zirkle would be the first female champion the girls will have seen in their lifetime. It has always been a thing of the past, something mom did before they were born.

As Zirkle pushes to win, reanimating the Butcher legacy in the process, the girls are getting to know their mom through immersion, mushing the sled-worn trail to Nome so they can see what she saw and meet the people who adored her.

"I can't explain it to them the way they can experience it," Monson said during a layover in the village of Kaltag on the Yukon River.

A rite of passage 

In Kaltag, a place where the race turns inland as teams run for the Bering Sea coast, the family's dog teams slept on piles of straw outside the community's school. Inside, dog booties hung drying on athletic mats stacked in the gym, fanned out like the fur ruffs on the girls' parkas.

"I don't think mushing's really my thing," Choochy said from the comforts of the school basketball court, where the family and their support crew of snowmachiners were getting ready to spend the night.

Both girls think they'd like to run the Iditarod once -- and only once. And even then, they're not certain. They'd like the experience, but they are becoming their own women and have found themselves drawn to more than dogs and snow.

Musical theater gets Tekla's heart beating. Ask her about her favorite Broadway show, Les Miserables, and she almost lifts off the floor, beaming. She has the concert disk committed to memory and is beside herself with the anticipation of getting to see it live for the first time this year.

Choochy's aspirations are wider. And at age 11, they should be. She loves horses and science, and is blessed with a gift for playing piano. She taught herself to play by listening to songs, then letting her fingers work the keys until the melodies came together.

Part of the reason Tekla only wants to dabble in mushing is because she "doesn't want to catch the mushing bug." In the moments when she feels the familiar tug, that desire to follow in her parents' footsteps, she remembers her mother's words: "Don't follow my dream. Follow your own dream."

This is actually Tekla's second time making the journey. When she was 11, just one year after her mom died, she and her dad mushed some of Butcher's ashes to the Old Woman cabin, a spiritually powerful rest stop in the mountains between Kaltag and Unalakleet.

She doesn't remember the mushing as much as she does other parts of the trip, like climbing Old Woman mountain and looking down on mushers passing by on their way to the coast, a particularly fond memory.

But she admits she didn't really connect to everything that was happening back then.

"I had a very odd way of dealing with my grief," she said, speaking frankly while seated on the gym floor. She'd politely say thank you when people offered condolences, or told her how she looked like her mom, that they knew her mom or had an interesting picture of Butcher's from her travels. Tekla kept the impact of the loss in a distant and inward place, filling the space with the business of a child's life and the sights of the trail.

With her older sister on hand to help booty the dogs and lead the way, it's now Choochy who's hit that magical age between little kid and young woman, old enough to both withstand the trip and take it all in.

"It's a rite of passage," Monson said about the family's pilgrimages into the rugged Alaska wilderness.

Same red parka, new journey

Butcher was beloved by people all along the race route, and Monson wants his girls to know their mom through the eyes of the people who came to know her on the Iditarod Trail.

They've learned how mom's lead dog, Granite, was able to come into homes and sleep on beds. And how her mom deeply admired a woman in one of the villages who had a severe spinal deformity. The woman could never land a husband yet adopted many children over the years and never felt sorry for herself. Butcher felt blessed to have known her.

"She felt so lucky," Monson said as he told of his late wife's fondness for the people she had come to know. "The inspiring thing for me is to have these guys hear the stories. To make her career more real."

For villagers who remember Butcher, watching the Monson family tour pull into town must be seem like a mirage, the figure of Butcher drifting toward them.

In 2007, Tekla wore her mother's distinct red snowsuit, the same one Butcher raced to victory in. This year, it's Choochy's turn to wear it. The coat still bears sponsor patches of that era: 7/11, Allied Fibers, Lyndon Transport, Pro Plan, GCI.

Wrapped in their mother's warmth, Tekla and Choochy are mushing somewhere new, doing things their mom might or might not have dreamed for them. In Kaltag, someone told Tekla she looked like Lady Gaga. It's not a spot-on resemblance, but it signals that these sisters are more than their mother's daughters. Butcher wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

"Susan was pretty unique when it came to focus, hard work and determination. Winning one time is one thing. Dominating for a decade is another," Monson said, looking back at his wife's accomplishments. "She never said I want to be the best woman. She said I want to be the best at this."

It's too early to know where Tekla and Choochy will end up in life, but with their mother's tenacious spirit to guide them, they're likely to get it right. And just as Alaskans are waiting to see who will reign in this year's Iditarod, the girls' dad can't wait to see where they go.

On this trip he has taken a few moments to quietly cherish this threshold in their lives. Stepping off into the woods or out of view, he'll watch his daughters standing on their sleds, driving dogs into the distance, cool winter air filling his lungs in this place where his wife's legacy still lives.

"I see just how proud Susan would be watching them going down the trail," he said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com