Dairy farmer’s Alaska sprint mushing dreams come true in new documentary ‘Underdog’

A dark dog in the foreground watches another dog getting a hug from a man in a hat, T shirt and jeans in front of a green field and a hill.
Doug Butler embraces one of his dogs, Dylan, a member of his sprint mushing team, at Butler’s family farm in Middlebury, Vermont. (Tommy Hyde/Mosaic Films)

The new movie “Underdog” tells the story of Vermont dairy farmer Doug Butler living out his dream of coming to Alaska to race his sled dog team at the Open North American Championships in Fairbanks.

It’s a feature-length documentary debuting at the Anchorage International Film Festival on Friday. And it’s the product of 10 years of work by filmmaker Tommy Hyde, who shot, directed and edited the film, which he says tells Butler’s “curiously optimistic” tale.

Listen here:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tommy Hyde: Over the years, I realized that he had not only never been to Alaska but had never left the farm for more than five days. And for someone who got so excited about, you know, watching a snowstorm blow in or seeing a deer in his front yard, I wondered how excited he might be if he saw the Rocky Mountains or realized this dream of his.

Casey Grove: Did you know much about dog mushing? What did you think when you found out that that was a big part of his life?

TH: No, I knew nothing about it. I had learned about the Iditarod in elementary school like every other American student. And so going over and seeing a house with 50, 100 sled dogs behind it was a real shock to the system. ‘Where where the hell am I?’ And I was surprised at how strong and intense the dogs could be when they were working, but simultaneously, how soft and gentle and sweet they could be. And he’s having so much fun when he’s dog mushing that he makes it seem like it’s the greatest thing that anyone can do in this lifetime. He, sure enough, threw me behind the sled a couple times in the process. And I’m not sure he’s wrong. It’s pretty amazing.

CG: He’s crossing into Alaska, and you see the ‘Welcome to Alaska’ sign, that really hit me. I mean, that was profound in that he was so emotional about that. For somebody who’s from Vermont, why was that such an emotional moment for him to see that sign, to actually be in Alaska?

TH: I don’t think Doug really ever thought that he would actually go to Alaska. You know, we all have big dreams in our lives, and really, whether or not they happen, they serve as this fuel or this source of optimism, that helps us sort of like continue to move forward. And I think for Doug’s reality as a dairy farmer, you know, he really discovered dog mushing right when he took over the family farm from his parents. And so, mushing and farming, this responsibility and this escape, are really intertwined for him. And so I think it was just a big moment of accomplishing something that he, I don’t think he thought it was possible. And then he made it happen and I think that was just an emotional moment for him. And I’m glad you felt the same way.

CG: Yeah, I mean, I just have to say, hearing him talk to people about this dream and saying, like, ‘We’re going to go to Fairbanks,’ or he tells one of his dogs, you know, ‘If you want a girlfriend, you’re gonna have to win Fairbanks,’ and to have him talking about my hometown — like it’s this thing that he’s reaching for, and he’s just describing it as ‘Fairbanks’ — I don’t know what, it like warmed my cold Alaskan heart.

TH: Haha. That’s amazing! That’s amazing.

CG: I don’t know if there’s a question there or not. I guess if there is, what was your concept? Or, you know, what was his concept of Fairbanks? As he’s describing it like that? And was it different when you guys got there?

TH: Yeah, you know, it’s so funny. I always heard Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Fairbanks. And I remember asking him at one point like, ‘Doug, why is Fairbanks so special? You know, like, why not Anchorage? Why not, you know, there’s racing in Tok and all over Alaska, and all over the states, in Wyoming.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, ever since I heard about this race, it’s been in me.’ There was just something about the Open North American Championships and this idea of this city in the north of Alaska, where the best sprint dog mushers in the world gathered and raced, from Europe and Alaska, and the states. And Doug always had this dream about being the only dairy farmer dumb enough to go up there and compete in the big leagues.

And I had an idea of what Alaska might look like, and Fairbanks wasn’t exactly what I had pictured. You know, you end up mushing on this wonderful, flat area. I’d pictured these big mountains and, like so many things that you build up in your mind, it’s totally different in real life. But I think that what was really wonderful to see when Doug got there, and what you sort of experience in the film, is how, you know, Doug was kind of the same person in Fairbanks that he is at all the other races around New England and Quebec that he goes to, but Fairbanks has always been really special, because that’s where the best competition in the world goes, it’s the oldest race in the country and, you know, it’s not weird to be a dog musher up there. Like Doug was finally with his his people.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.

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