Doug Butler, a resident of Middlebury, is a dairy farmer-turned-dogsled racer whose story was captured in a feature-length documentary by filmmaker Tommy Hyde ’14.5 that premiered in September of 2021.
During his first year at Middlebury, Hyde took Professor Pete Lourie’s J-Term course, Adventure Writing and Digital Storytelling, in which students connect with a member of the local community and create a short film about them to learn the ins and outs of basic filmmaking. Hyde and a classmate were connected with Butler, a Middlebury dairy farmer.
Butler was born and raised in Vermont on the dairy farm that his family bought in 1926. He planned to attend the University of Vermont, but was instead drawn to stay and work on the family farm in a time of hardship — and it became his life’s work. When Hyde began filming Butler in 2012, he learned that Butler had not ever been away from his farm for more than five days.
Butler’s dream of dog sled racing was born in 1976, when he watched a race for the first time in Shelburne, Vermont. He soon saw an advertisement in the newspaper selling a team of dogs, and he jumped on the opportunity. Butler has participated in hundreds of dogsled races since.
Over forty years later, Hyde’s feature-length documentary about his and Butler’s journey across the country, racing Butler’s dog team in Alaska, “Underdog,” premiered at Camden Film Festival this past September.
Hyde learned by doing throughout the process of creating “Underdog.”
“I figured that the best way to become a documentary director is to just direct a documentary,” Hyde said.
The film explores the loneliness and isolation experienced by small rural farmers like Butler. Hyde explained that he sees the film as uniquely relevant right now, as the Covid-19 pandemic begins its third year.
“I think it’s kind of a unique moment for Doug’s story because I think we all have a lot to learn from it, and his ability to find enjoyment and happiness while all of those things are omnipresent. I think it’s really his defining characteristic,” Hyde said.
Butler excitedly explained the adventure he and Hyde had driving from Vermont to Fairbanks, Alaska, to compete in the Open North American Sled Dog Race, and the incredible nature they witnessed along the way.
“It was the most exciting time of my life. I have to do that again,” Butler said.
Today Butler, alongside Middlebury graduate Jules Struzyna ’19.5 and current Middlebury student Carson Williams ’23.5, runs Cobble Hill Kennel whenever Butler is not dogsled racing. Williams is currently on a gap semester and working full time at the kennel. Like Hyde, he met Butler during his first year at Middlebury through Professor Lowry’s J-Term course.
Cobble Hill Kennel offers dogsled rides out of Farr’s Field in Waterbury, Vermont, as well as on the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) trail in the Mad River Valley. In 2020 and 2021, Cobble Hill Kennel raised enough money to send Butler out West for the Wyoming Pedigree Dogsled Race, the largest race of its kind in the lower forty-eight.
“You just can’t explain how great the dogs are and what they do for people, and how high you get when you’re on that sled,” Butler said.
Butler has recently started connecting through his dogs with people in the community who have special needs. He has hosted children with disabilities on his farm and taught them how to care for the dogs.
“Quite a few people told me that it really helps their minds,” said Butler.
Although hard times led him to sell his dairy cows in 2019, Butler still raises cattle. He delivers the beef that he raises to nursing homes and hospitals throughout Vermont.
“Sometimes I’ll sneak a puppy into the living room, and there goes two hours and the older generation gets to play with a puppy. It’s a lot of fun to see happy people,” Butler said.
When asked about challenges he faces in his dog sledding work, Butler responded that there was no struggle involved, just a whole lot of fun.
“If you have a bad day, go play with the dogs,” Butler said.
Williams works closely with Butler on a near-daily basis, and he emphasized the optimism Butler brings to all he does.
“He can get set back, of course, and I feel like working at a kennel is full of setbacks … but he is a perpetual optimist, he is always looking forward to the next thing, he’s always happy and ready to go, and he’s always got a smile on his face,” Williams said.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Professor Pete Lourie. The error has been corrected.
Susanna Schatz ‘24 (she/her) is a local editor and visuals artist for The Campus. She is an English major and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies minor, and plans to study abroad in Madrid this spring.
Susanna is the social media and marketing intern for a small business started by Midd Alums, Treeline Terrains. In her free time you’ll find her taking in the Vermont outdoors hiking, swimming, skiing, or reading in an adirondack chair.