An ice-cold passion

Former Alaska resident at her best behind dogs in fresh snow

Cupcake Mushing owner and musher Nancy Stark, Lacona, gives one of her lead dogs, Wiggles, a kiss. Photo by Amanda Morrison/NNY Living.

Nancy Stark isn’t afraid of the cold, or of physical activity. At 70, she has more passion and energy than most people her age. She is a musher. And there is no place she would rather be than with her 13 Alaskan-bred dogs running hard on a cold, snowy trail.

“It is hard work but I absolutely love it. Learning how to be a musher was very difficult and very challenging,” Mrs. Stark said. “Mushing isn’t just a sport, it’s a lifestyle. Mushers are very dedicated to what they do.”

Her adventure in running dogs began more than a decade ago when she was in her late 50s and she and her husband, Ray, were living in Alaska. After years of moving from state to state, the duo decided to slow down a bit and enjoy the scenery. Mr. Stark said their decision to take a three-month vacation turned into a nine-month vacation that ultimately landed them in the icy peaks outside Anchorage.

“Before we ever considered living in Alaska I was an [information technology] professional,” Mr. Stark said. “A work opportunity came up in Atlanta, so we moved there from New York. We were there for 20 years before we got relocated to Florida by the company.”

Mrs. Stark wasn’t a fan of the warm weather, and with Mr. Stark wanting a career change, they decided to move on.

“I wanted do something else,” Mr. Stark said. “We were taking trips to Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, all sorts of places, trying to find the next spot where we would live. As we were going through this process, we decided to take some time for ourselves. We spent nine months on the road in a camper traveling from state to state before we landed permanently in Alaska.

Nancy Stark stops to chat with one of her dogs while cleaning up their living area. The dogs stand on top of their shelters to try and get her attention. Photo by Amanda Morrison/NNY Living.

“We had been there with friends on a vacation in the past and really enjoyed it. The more we talked about it, the more we realized there was nothing holding us back. So we sold our house, our summer house and the cars.”

That was in 2000. Because it was September, living in a camper in one of the coldest place in the country wasn’t an option. Mr. and Mrs. Stark found a rental home and began to settle into the landscape. Little did Mrs. Stark know that her future passion was just a few cities down the road.

“The woman from whom we rented the house had a daughter who ran a bed and breakfast in Willow, Alaska,” Mrs. Stark said. “Willow is considered the hub for mushers. Her daughter also ran sled dogs. We went up to the bed and breakfast for a weekend and went dog sledding. That’s when I fell in love with it. I looked at Ray and told him that this is what I wanted to do.”

An extensive love for the sport ensued and a year-long apprenticeship with Lynda Plettner, one of nine recorded women to participate and place in the Iditarod — an annual 1,050-mile long-distance dog sled race run in early March from Anchorage to Nome. The Iditarod, also dubbed the “Last Great Race” on earth, is what mushers live for. And while Mrs. Stark didn’t participate in the intensive race, she did find that running dogs was something she is very passionate about. With six dogs already part of their family in Anchorage, the Starks recognized that yet another move was necessary, this time to accommodate Mrs. Stark’s love for the sport.

Additional photos

“We made the decision that this is what Nancy wanted to do and to do it she needed more dogs and we needed to live in a more rural area,” Mr. Stark said. “That meant moving farther north in Alaska where we could be on a trail system, or finding another location. Because of our age and my work, we decided on another location. We looked in many different areas across the U.S. We ended up in Oswego County, close to a trail system, near family and it accommodates our work.”

The couple’s home and property is adjacent to Winona State Forest in Lacona, an area loaded with trails.

Today Mrs. Stark spends nearly 40 hours a week caring for her dogs and running them as often as possible. All this while maintaining a part-time job as a mental health therapist in Watertown. Both her job and her hobby give her great fulfillment, countering one another enough so she can serve others as a therapist and serve herself with her dogs. Her dogs are unique to the area, as all but one is from Alaska (one from Germany). Most of them are named after different towns in Alaska. While she runs 13 on the trails, they own 15, all of which made the trip from Alaska to New York with them nearly three years ago.

“I have a passion and I love it,” Mrs. Stark said with deep emotion. “Those dogs give me more than I could ever return. If you are passionate about something, you know it’s something you simply must do. And I simply must do it.”

Joleene DesRosiers Moody is a transformational speaker and freelance writer who lives in Pulaski. Contact her at joleene@joleenespeaks.com. Visit her at www.joleenespeaks.com.