FAIRBANKS—As Dave Monson stood outside his house on the bank of the Chena River on Monday morning, he gave a cheer and a burst of applause as the No. 11 team bolted toward Nenana.
Kristy Berington's presence in the Iditarod isn't as notable as it once would have been, a fact that brings a smile to Monson's face. About a third of this year's Iditarod mushers are women, a legacy that many people would trace back to his late wife, four-time winner Susan Butcher.
The Iditarod's launch from her hometown coincided with the 25-year anniversary of Butcher's final championship in the race.
Butcher died in 2006 after an eight-month battle with leukemia, but her pioneering victories still resonate today. Her Iditarod championships in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1990followed an era when the race was dominated by male mushers.
"She was an icon — she really was the face of the Iditarod for a long time," Monson said. "She inspired a lot of young women to achieve their goals, and not just mushing."
Monson still lives at the Chena River home that he and Butcher shared with their two daughters, Tekla and Chisana. He hosted an Alaska Airlines-sponsored party there on race day, as he and hundreds of other spectators cheered on teams as they departed Fairbanks.
Even a quarter-century after her last victory, Butcher's impact on the sport is significant. Copies of "Granite," the children's book that Butcher and Monson wrote about their lead dog, were handed out to kids on Monday. Their dog lot is still visited by hundreds of visitors each summer day aboard the Riverboat Discovery, which makes stops along the bank for a tour of an Alaska kennel.
John Binkley, whose family operates the riverboat, said visitors still buzz about a trip to Butcher's kennel.
"It really is incredible, the amount of people around the country who know and recognize Susan Butcher, even all these years after she won the Iditarod," Binkley said. "She was a national sports hero in the country."
Several of this year's racers have significant ties to that past. Iditarod mainstay DeeDee Jonrowe got one of her first dogs from Butcher, and race veteran Jessie Royer used to work in their Trail Breaker Kennel. Fairbanks musher Laura Allaway is running dogs from Butcher's bloodline, including some puppies that Chisana helped raise.
"It's really fun to see them run in this race because I have that connection to them," Chisana said.
Monson said the first few Iditarods after Butcher's death were bittersweet but that those ties have made the race fun as time has passed. His daughters aren't competitive mushers, but he took each of them on a sled dog trip to Nome as 11-year-olds. Tekla is a college freshman in Connecticut this year, and Chisana is a West Valley High School freshman.
"That was a good way for me to be able to show them what Susan loved," he said.
Butcher was the last woman to win the Iditarod, but Monson said it's only a matter of time before that changes. He praises the talents of Aliy Zirkle, a three-time runner-up, and figures a few women in this year's field will eventually emerge as champions.
Monson said gender won't matter as much as it once did, a detail that would make Butcher proud.
"It doesn't matter anymore — men cheer for women, women cheer for men." Monson said. "It's really a testament that she wanted in her life, the ability to compete."
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMbusiness.