WILLOW -- Looking through the living room window, next to a painting of her late husband mushing dogs, 92-year-old Natalie Norris has watched this winter as her granddaughter prepared a team to run the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
It's a familiar scene outside in the dog yard, where the rookie, 26-year-old Lisbet Skogen Norris, recently dished up a rich, brown broth to the 35 dogs in the lot, including the 16 that will make up this year's Team Anadyr. Some barked and howled, tugging at their chains. Others waited in quiet anticipation of the training run to follow.
"I've never in my life so single-mindedly pursued something," Lisbet said. "I've never, ever been so focused on one goal."
The goal, she said, is to finish with a healthy team of Siberian huskies.
Lisbet sets off from her hometown of Willow with dozens of other mushers on Sunday, headed for Nome about 1,000 miles away. She is the youngest woman in the field of 69 and has never taken a dog team so far. In fact, even though she has been surrounded by sled dogs and the mushing lifestyle her whole life, she has only taken to racing in the past three years. But in doing so, she carries a torch passed from her grandparents to her parents and now herself: racing dogs from her family's breeding line, the oldest Siberian husky kennel in the world.
"I just think it's part of our family tradition, competing in a race of some kind," grandmother Natalie said over coffee inside the house she and Lisbet share in Willow. "I think it's nice that she's carrying on a tradition, that somebody's carrying on a tradition in the family."
Dog mushing seems to be in the Norris family's blood. Natalie calls it "being doggy" and said it would bother her if none of her grandkids were interested in mushing.
Natalie and her husband, Earl Norris, who died in 2001 at the age of 81, were Alaska mushing pioneers. Unlike the Norrises to come, they both got into it somewhat against their parents' wishes, at least initially.
As a 10-year-old in Idaho, Earl had sled dogs shipped to him from Alaska without his parents knowing, he told interviewers for the Denali National Park Jukebox Series, an oral history project, in 2000. That upset his parents, but he managed to keep the dogs until he moved to Alaska in 1942.
Natalie told a similar story about growing up in Lake Placid, N.Y., where at the time it was common to see dog teams on the street, she said.
"I can remember, as a little girl, one driver had bells on his harnesses, so you could hear the team coming," Natalie said. "I'd run to the window and watch them go by."
Natalie said she started "collecting" dogs also around the time she was 10. At one point, her father insisted she get rid of them, she said.
"So for a few weeks, I didn't have any," she said, laughing. "It didn't take long to start collecting them again. The second time around he just kind of gave up."
Years later, after racing sled dogs in New England, Natalie decided to move to Alaska. She made it onto the cover of a magazine, along with three huskies, and a friend of Earl's showed him a copy, Natalie said.
"So he immediately wrote," she said, laughing again.
Earl offered to help Natalie settle into Alaska. They spent the next 55 years together.
'THERE IF SHE WANTED TO DO IT'
Earl helped found the Fur Rondy World Championship Race and won it twice. Natalie took first in the Women's World Championship in its second year. Earl pioneered a route up Muldrow Glacier to ferry supplies for climbers attempting to reach the top of Mount McKinley. Over the years, the family helped many others, including Iditarod champion Martin Buser, get their start in mushing dogs.
The Norrises homesteaded 120 acres in Anchorage. They ran dogs on the trails around them until the land gradually turned into more of a city, then moved north to Willow when their son J.P. Norris, Lisbet's father, was a boy, J.P. recalled.
Maybe it was not surprising that J.P. grew up mushing dogs, too, and still competes off and on in sprint races. Kari got into mushing in Norway as a teenager and came to Alaska to be a handler and ended up staying. Kari also does sprint racing and completed the Iditarod in 1984 and 1986.
J.P. said his parents did not force mushing onto him, and that was something he and Kari did not want to do to Lisbet, either. An aspiring musher has to want to do the work -- feeding the dogs, training them, cleaning up poop, and much more -- because the actual racing is only "on the surface," J.P. said.
"I saw my peer group, many of the mushing families who did encourage their kids that way, pretty much gave them the race dogs on the weekends. They didn't really develop the interest," J.P. said. "(Lisbet) has been around it and had the opportunity to jump in whenever she was interested, and we didn't really do anything to encourage it. It was there if she wanted to do it, and at this time in her life, she does."
When Lisbet first talked about running the Iditarod, "it was kind of a nice surprise," Kari said.
The parents give Lisbet tips when she asks questions, but they do not offer much in the way of unsolicited advice, J.P. said. Mushing is a sport best learned by doing, he said.
"We keep saying, 'You've got to know your dogs,'" Kari said.
Lisbet acknowledges her parents' depth of knowledge about training and racing dogs. Sometimes she takes their advice and sometimes she does not, she said.
"Usually it turns out I should have," she said.
And sometimes during her Iditarod preparations, Lisbet said, she has wished someone would just hand her a training plan and a run schedule for the race, an obvious path to follow.
"In reality, it doesn't work like that. You have to run your dogs according to their ability," she said.
When Lisbet was younger and volunteering for races, including in the Iditarod's dropped dogs yard in Unalakleet, she was mostly interested in the dogs, she said. At the time, she wanted to become a veterinarian and, in hindsight, didn't pay as much attention to what the mushers were doing as she should have.
In college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the idea of veterinary medicine gave way to the pull of the college's Northern Studies and History programs, in which Lisbet double-majored and earned her bachelor's degree in 2011. Later that year and through the start of 2012, she trained and raced dogs in northern Norway, returning home to work at her family's feed and mushing supply store, Underdog Feeds. Since then, she's also become involved in the fight against a dam on the Susitna River, under the banner of the Susitna River Coalition.
Carrying that message and carrying on the family tradition are things Lisbet can do now. Someday, with more long-distance mushing, she might also run races in a more competitive way, she said.
"There's a reason Iditarod is dominated by middle-aged men. Experience counts for a lot. It counts for almost everything," Lisbet said. "And I don't have the experience or the confidence to go out there and be competitive with my dog team. I just want to go out there and take care of them and take care of myself for a thousand miles."
Asked if they will worry about Lisbet out on the long trail to Nome, her parents and grandmother all said no.
"Not really, because I feel like she's so capable of taking care of herself. I mean, you know bad things can happen," Kari said. "What really worried us was when she was couch-surfing in Europe by herself. That's much more worrisome than being out on a dogsled in the middle of nowhere, to me anyway."
Grandma Natalie agreed.
"I think she's pretty self-reliant. She will be able to handle emergencies. No, I don't worry about her," Natalie said.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race gets under way this weekend, with the ceremonial start in Anchorage beginning at 10 a.m. on 4th Avenue downtown. Teams will leave at 2-minute intervals and run on city streets and trails to the Campbell Science Center.
The race begins for real at 2 p.m. Sunday in Willow.