by Beth Ipsen
Eric Butcher has eliminated some distractions surrounding his second attempt at the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race this year.
The associated professor of mechanical engineering has taken a sabbatical from teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and moved to Two Rivers where he has excellent access to trails.
His goal is to improve on his personally disappointing 15th place finish in 2004 which he believes was caused of numerous distractions while he was on the trail.
A fire burned his house down less than three weeks before the start of the race and he spent most of the 1,000 miles worrying about what he was going to do once he got home.
It was definitely a mental distraction," Butcher said. "I had lots of problem sleeping too long in checkpoints and not competing as I wanted to. At one point after the Circle checkpoint he dozed off while on the runners. His dogs turned around and started back toward the checkpoint. " His wife, Melanie, further explained, "Most of what was going through Eric's mind was, 'What am I going to do with my family?'"
Shortly after the fire destroyed their house, the couple and their two sons moved into a small dry cabin next door just before the start of the 2004 race. This year, however, they live in a spacious log home near the Two Rivers Elementary School. Butcher can access the Flat Top Trail, a new trail made along a fire break created to fight the forest fires that have ravaged the area in the last two years. Butcher said this run mimics the hilly Yukon Quest trail because it follows a ridge line.
The Oklahoma-born musher had a head start on his training by doing tours on the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau this summer. The runs were short and sweet, but it gave Butcher a chance to put some miles on his dogs during the summer and train new leaders. He said half of his team will be able to lead at one point or another during the 2006 race that starts in Fairbanks, Alaska Feb. 11. However, it was hard for him to be away from his family for the summer. After taking the year off from the Yukon Quest to do other races, Butcher is back to improve from his rookie showing.
"The Yukon Quest is my favorite race," Butcher said. "I prefer the Interior trails. I like the hills."
He said it also helps that the race starts practically in his back yard every other year, making life easier for him logistically and allowing Melanie to be his handler, eliminating even more distractions.
(Photo: Eric and Melanie Butcher / by Carsten Thies)