Dog-mushing legend Earl Norris was an Alaskan to the core

Posted: Friday, November 16, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Wherever sled dogs showed up in the modern history of Alaska adventure and sport, there was Earl Norris.

When Barbara Washburn became the first woman to reach the top of Mount McKinley in 1947, Norris and his dogs were the vital support team, ferrying supplies up Muldrow Glacier.

When Anchorage in 1946 decided it needed a cornerstone for its annual winter carnival, Norris was there to help put the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race on the streets.

When a young Swiss named Martin Buser wanted to learn about mushing in 1979, Norris became his teacher. Norris taught Buser a gangline from a neckline, a brush bow from a snow hook.

What he did for Buser, who would go on to become a three-time champion in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, was what Norris had done for so many others.

Among them was Iditarod veteran Bob Chlupach of Willow, Norris' neighbor for more than a decade. For old times' sake, Chlupach guided a team of Norris' dogs up the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail to Nome this year.

It would prove to be the last time the grand old man of Alaska mushing, who twice raced in the Iditarod, got to see a team of his beloved Siberians finish the race.

As winter returned to Alaska this year and mushing began again, Norris died Oct. 31 at his Willow home next to the kennels of dogs to which he'd devoted his life. He was 81 and Alaskan to the core.

''Earl Norris is grizzled,'' former Daily News sport editor Lew Freedman wrote back in the 1990s. ''That's the only fair word. Nearly bald, a white stubble of beard. It is the look of the sourdough.''

Of course, Norris, like the late Joe Redington, father of the Iditarod, never worried much about looks. They were dog men, and sled dogs were their lives. They loved them.

Siberian huskies were the particular passion of Norris and his wife, Natalie.

''Earl made the statement, at one time,'' Chlupach said, ''that Siberians had always been real good to him, and he was going to stick it out with them.''

Long after the mixture of blood from pointers, retrievers and hounds had transformed the husky from a steady working dog into a fast-paced racing dog, Norris clung to purebred Siberians.

And the world of Siberians, an almost cultish collection of dog breeders and nostalgia-inspired mushers, clung to the Norrises. Almost any time anyone, anywhere in the world, talked Siberian huskies, the names of Earl and Natalie entered the discussion.

It could not have been otherwise.

The high honors of the breed were owned by the pair. Norris won the Fur Rendezvous World Championship with Siberians in 1947 and 1948. Natalie almost won it in 1949 when Earl had the flu.

Nearly 40 years before Roxy Wright Champaine set all of Alaska to talking about whether a woman could win that race (Wright Champaine succeeded for the first time in 1989), Natalie almost accomplished the feat sans fanfare.

Had she won, Chlupach said, it would have come as no surprise. The Norrises always were a team. In 1952, the couple put two teams in the Rondy.

Earl finished second, only about 30 seconds behind Gareth Wright, Roxy's father and one of the key pioneers in the modern-day breeding of sled dogs for speed. Natalie was fourth.

Now, she will mush on alone.

''They chose kennel life,'' Chlupach said, ''and they were successful at what they did, because they worked hard at it.''

Some might even have said that Earl picked a mate in the way of a good breeder. He went after one with the looks he liked and the temperament he needed. That was in 1946.

Norris was already in Alaska. He saw a newspaper magazine with a cover graced with the photo of a parka-clad young woman with three huskies. The story said the aspiring musher planned to move to Alaska from Lake Placid, N.Y. -- then the stronghold of Lower 48 dog driving.

Norris wrote the young woman a letter offering to help her get settled in the great, white silence. Through thick and thin, including Norris' heart attack and heart operation in the early '90s, they spent the next 55 years together.

The couple homesteaded in what is now South Anchorage, but moved north when the city became too big for them. They raised two sons, John P. and Theodore, and one daughter, Edgarita, and helped dozens of mushers mature from youth to adulthood.

How many?

''That's a hard one to answer,'' said Chlupach. ''There were so many. Earl and Natalie always had kennel help from Europe.''

Some of those Europeans, like Buser, stayed. Others went back to form the foundation for the European sled dog racing circuit.

''Earl had a great impact in Europe on racing,'' Chlupach said. And he had an even bigger impact on an Alaska now almost gone.

There was a time less than three decades ago when television programs arrived a day late on tape from Seattle. That was a time when Alaska had a unique culture, when men like Norris and George Attla were celebrities.

''When I got into sled dogs,'' Chlupach said, ''the headlines in the paper weren't Shaquille O'Neal dunks 75 times' or anything like that. They were all about Doc (Roland) Lombard, Attla and Norris.''

They were the legends of their time.



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