When living and traveling in Alaska, you frequently hear the name Susan Butcher and Trail Breaker Kennel, especially during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race season in March every year. She left a huge footprint in Alaska’s history. Susan Butcher was only the second woman to win the Iditarod in 1986 and she won four out of five sequential years. There are less than 10 mushers who won more than four times in the nearly 50 years of Iditarod history and she is one of them and the only female. The first Saturday of every March is Susan Butcher Day, the traditional start of Iditarod each year.
Trail Breaker Kennel was set up by Susan Butcher back in 1976 with the intention of competing in the Iditarod. With her husband David, who is also an accomplished musher, they started the Fairbanks location of Trail Breaker Kennel in 1990 and opened the door to summer visitors to Alaska in 2005. Sadly, Susan passed away in 2006 after a long battle with leukemia at the age of 51 but her legacy lives on through her family and the kennel.
Now the Trail Breaker Kennel is run by her husband, David, and their daughters. We had to visit this historic kennel during our time in Fairbanks. I love visiting dog mushing kennels and learning more about this part of Alaska’s history. The surroundings of Trail Breaker Kennel are perhaps the most scenic that I’ve been. It’s located by the beautiful Chena River. It’s not far from civilization but it’s like being far in the wilderness. We met with Tekla, Susan and David’s eldest daughter, and her mushing staff. They were preparing the last tour slot of the day with us right before the setting sun. I was struck by the resemblance between Tekla and her mother. Tekla tucked us in the sled and off we went.
Tekla herself is quite an accomplished dog musher. At age 11, Tekla mushed her own dog team on 700 miles of the Iditarod trail with her father to celebrate her mother’s legacy. Her younger sister Chisana also completed the same trip when she was 11 in 2012. The dog team at Trail Breaker Kennel has been competing in sled dog races and they don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
We went around the trails a couple of times under the setting sun. The dogs are always so content while they are running. You hear nothing but their tread. They looked back at us like “What are you doing? Let’s go!” when we stopped for photos. I met lots of racing husky dogs but I’m always amazed at their strength and loyalty, from their lean body and sweet-sweet face. Knowing that these dogs are related to the champion dog team of Susan Butcher and feeling her presence in the kennel made this visit extra special. Running with these dogs was like I was being part of history.
Trail Breaker Kennel offers a year-round dog sled experience. They are many different options and no previous experience is required. Make sure to check out their Historic Kennel Tour if you’re interested in the history of dog mushing in Alaska and want to know more about Susan Butcher’s legacy.
Dog mushing (dog sledding) is the official state sport of Alaska. It’s not just an official sport, but a popular one, too. Especially during the Iditarod in March, the whole state is in a festive mood. People travel far to see the beginning of the race and passionately follow the results. Everyone shares the cheers and heartache of the results. The dogs are really amazing athletes and a life-saving transportation method in Alaska.