Slow or steady? Lisbet Norris and the great Siberian debate

Lisbet Norris is a third generation musher of Siberian Huskies. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
Lisbet Norris is a third generation musher of Siberian Huskies, like her nine-year-old lead dog Nils. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

In competitive mushing, not all sled dogs are created equal.

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As a breed, Alaskan Huskies dominate the top spots in high profile races. But Siberian Huskies have a long and storied tradition in Alaska, stretching back to the Seward Peninsula gold rush and the roots of the Iditarod serum run to Nome.

A family in Willow runs a renowned kennel for the breed, and one of the youngest members is keeping the Siberian tradition alive as she prepares for her third Iditarod run.

On a recent weekend, 27-year-old Lisbet Norris showed off her immaculate dog lot. Pointing out the wide spectrum of sizes among specimen, she picked up a genial nine-year-old named Nils that has run with her team twice all the way to Nome.

“What’s interesting is that the standard for Siberian Huskies is that it’s relatively loose. So Nils here is, like, I dunno, maybe 45 pounds,” Norris said with a groan, heaving him to her chest like a kettlebell.

The Norris family’s lineage in Alaska is interwoven with the history of the Siberian breed itself.

“I’m a third generation dog musher. My family’s kennel is called Alaskan Kennels, and we’re the oldest Siberian Husky kennel in the world.”

That claim, and the name of the breed itself, can be tricky. Siberians are actually an American breed: Their forebears were imported from the Anadyr River region of the Russian Far East across the Bering Strait for the All-Alaska Sweepstakes sled-dog race by the sport’s grandfathers like Victor Anderson and Leonhard Seppala.

“All Siberians can trace their lineage back to those dogs,” Norris explained. “It’s like 13 generations back–it’s very direct.”

Alaskan Kennel's Siberian Huskies are versetile enough athletes to run in short sprint races, as well as long-distance endurance races. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.
Alaskan Kennel’s Siberian Huskies are versetile enough athletes to run in short sprint races, as well as long-distance endurance races. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.

After the Serum Run and the end of the gold boom, many of those who mushed on the Seward Peninsula moved back to the East Coast.

“They took their dogs with them, and so the registry was established in the ’30s, and that’s kinda when the breed started.”

Norris’s grandparents met on the edge of the same era. In the 1940s, her grandfather was living in Anchorage when someone mailed him a magazine showing a dark-haired beauty in a parka on the cover. Inside was an article about a young woman who ran dogs in Lake Placid, New York, getting ready to follow her mushing dreams to Alaska.

“Grandpa read the article and he immediately wrote, offering his help for when she arrived,” Norris said through a wide smile. “When she came to Alaska she kept her dogs at his place and it wasn’t too long after that that they got married and started the kennel in Anchorage.”

Norris’s parents still mush. In fact, her dad competes in the Fur Rondy sprint races with dogs from the same breeding pool as the younger Norris’s long-hauling Iditarod squad.

That versatility is one of the breed’s strong suits, along with their physical traits.

“Everything about them is efficient and suited for travel in cold weather.”

That includes their thick double coats, small ears, tiny blood vessels, and tough paws. Unlike their lean Alaskan counter-parts, Siberians can fare fine running and resting without jackets or extra gear in an Arctic environment. During training, Norris says she doesn’t need to boot them until it gets below zero degrees.

But there are drawbacks.  Siberians have the disparaging nickname “slowberians” in some corners of the racing scene, and Norris is one of just a few mushers to use them in prestigious long-distance competitions. The highest finish for a Siberian team in recent Iditarods was 30th, by Mike Ellis, in 2013.

“There’s this stereotype of them being very slow, heavy dogs.”

That, according to Norris, is a misconception–one that sometimes comes from people mistaking Siberians for larger, heavier Malamutes.

But most of the first-place Iditarod finishers in the last two decades have championed the scientific rigor that goes into their breeding programs, fusing the best traits for long-distance racing into hybrid lines. Whether or not that science bears demonstrable results, the notion of a concentrating on pure-bred lines can seem quaint. It’s also a limiting factor: The breeding pool is smaller, with significantly less polished stock to chose from in building out racing teams and kennels.

Norri's lead dog Ripp bounces in his harness at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage in 2015. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
Norri’s lead dog Ripp bounces in his harness at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage in 2015. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

Norris is frequently questioned about whether it’s feasible to aspire to the sport’s upper echelons if she remains true to the breed.

“I get asked a lot by people, ‘Well if you ever wanted to be competitive would you switch to Alaskans?'” She posed, before answering, “No. I love the breed, I adore these dogs. And I enjoy challenging myself and learning the limits of my team and doing the best with what we have.”

Her devotion to Siberians seems less tied to pushing the boundaries of the sport than realizing the full abilities of the breed.

Norris bent down to show-off the malting top-coat of a bright-eyed Husky named Ripp. She offered a familiar comparison of her own abilities measured against the four-legged athletes on her team.

“I know that I am, without a doubt, the weak link.”