Imagine hurtling down a snowy trail on a thin metal sled frame being dragged by six energetic dogs. Sound good?
Tiffany Gast of Randolph lives for this exhilarating experience. Gast, 17, is a musher. She grew up racing sled dogs, and she has placed highly in races all around New England.
Tiffany’s two older brothers, Dillon and Eddie, are both mushers, but have left home for college. Last spring, Dillon competed in the championship for the International Federation of Sleddog Sports in Norway. Her parents, Patricia and George, help out with caring for the dogs and organizing races.
The Gast family’s relationship to dog sledding began when a musher came to visit Eddie’s class in elementary school. Eddie was riveted. He begged his parents to buy a sled dog, and he eventually competed in his first season in 1999. “It all happened because of Eddie,” says Tiffany. “We kept getting dogs and having litters of puppies, and it blossomed into something bigger.” The family now has 10 dogs, nine of which still can race.
Tiffany first hopped on a dog sled when she was just 5 years old. When she first began to compete, she used only three dogs; now she races four- and six-dog teams. At any given race, mushers are started at timed intervals. “You are technically racing the clock, but you are also racing the other teams.” She says of this system, “If I catch someone, then I know I have beaten them.” Gast says that although racers take the sport very seriously, there is a supportive and friendly community of mushers at every race. “Competition gets really intense, but people are there to give a hand,” she said. “It’s a community. My best friend is a sled dog racer.”
Now that her brothers are out of the house, the responsibility of caring for 10 dogs rests on Tiffany’s shoulders. This means that she feeds them in the morning before she goes to school, puts straw in their dog houses, takes them for runs when there is not any snow, and spends much of her time interacting with them. “It was a wake-up call when my brothers left the house,” says Gast, “It is a huge responsibility.” She says that it has been a burden, but also a blessing because she has an even closer relationship with the dogs.
Before our interview, Tiffany showed me a few of the family’s dogs. Kanut is an adorably scruffy dog that can no longer run because he is blind, but he has earned two first-place finishes for the family. Hammer is a large, tan dog with a loud bark that Tiffany describes as a “big fuzzy teddy bear.” Tiffany’s favorite dog is named Klondike. “Klondike is my little baby,” she says. “I can tell when he is feeling weird or sad.” She says that because her well-being often depends on her team, she has to trust her dogs completely. “You have a more personal relationship with these dogs than someone has with a pet. You develop a special connection with your dogs because you have to trust them to understand and obey you always.”
Although she has not had many races yet because “the winter is not being very cooperative,” Tiffany is hopeful that conditions will continue to get better. You can see her compete at the Burke Mountain Sled Dog Dash on the first weekend of March. She hopes to spend next year in a foreign country, where she can continue to race sled dogs. She has contacts in Romania, Norway, Argentina, and the United Kingdom, through her brothers and the mushing community. “It would be nice to stay in the sport,” she says, “but I don’t know what the future holds yet.”