It took Thomas Waerner about 9 1/2 days to win the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
It’s taking quite a bit longer — nine weeks and counting — for him to go home to Norway.
Waerner and his 16 dogs have been stuck in Alaska since their race ended March 18 in Nome, stranded by pandemic-caused travel restrictions and flight cancellations.
Not that he uses words like “stuck” and “stranded” when it comes to his extended stay here.
“I like Alaska a lot,” Waerner said. “It’s kind of my dream place. But I have a family.”
Back home in Torpa, Norway, he has a wife, a job, five children and 35 sled dogs that didn’t make the trip to Alaska this year. He missed the celebration when his 9-year-old turned 10. He misses morning coffee with his wife, Guro.
If all goes as planned, Waerner, 47, will fly home in early June on a historic DC-6 that is parked in Fairbanks and bound for an aviation museum in Sola, Norway. Everts Air Cargo of Fairbanks is selling the plane, and Waerner said the Air History Museum is expected to finalize the deal early this week.
Then Waerner will get a COVID-19 test, round up his dogs from sprint musher Arleigh Reynolds’ kennel in Salcha, and head home on the DC-6.
“We are hitchhiking,” Waerner said. “The plane is going to Norway and we are going with them. We are so lucky.”
According to a Norwegian media report, the DC-6 is 64 years old and was once operated by Braathens SAFE from 1962-1973. “It started its career in 1956 at Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong,” according to an English translation of the article, “and after the Norwegian stay has been used both as a water bomb and as a fuel carrier.”
Now it’s ferrying sled dogs. According to Waerner, “they’re painting the dog team on the side of the plane.” Word of the museum’s acquisition, and the championship cargo it intends to deliver, is making the news in Norway, he said.
Waerner, his wife and 16 of their dogs arrived in Alaska on Feb. 21 and stayed with a friend in Big Lake until the Iditarod’s ceremonial start in Anchorage on March 7.
The new coronavirus was just about to hit its stride in the United States, and a couple of days before Waerner’s race ended, Guro left Alaska earlier than planned — air traffic was starting to shut down, and she wanted to get home to the kids, the dogs and her job as a veterinarian while she still could.
Waerner has run the Iditarod twice — he was the 2015 Rookie of the Year for finishing 17th — and has worked as a handler in other races. When he comes to Alaska, he builds a buffer into his departure date, because he never knows when the race might end.
He has known sprint musher Arleigh Reynolds for 30 years and he has friends in Ester and Salcha, so he often spends a few days around Fairbanks after the race. This year, a few days turned into more than a few weeks — long enough that he just made an offer on a used dog truck, Waerner said with a laugh.
“Maybe I have to spend the summer here,” he said, laughing again.
It’s a nice time to be in Alaska, he said. He went on a couple of camping trips with the dogs before the snow melted, and on most days he goes on long walks with them. Days are more relaxed than what he is used to as a champion musher, father of five and manager of an electric company.
“I’m an energetic person. I have to relax here. I guess it’s good sometimes,” he said.
The prospect of hitching a ride home on the DC-6 emerged more than a month ago, but getting the details worked out has taken time. A couple of anticipated departure dates have come and gone, and though he’s eager to go home, Waerner takes the delays in stride.
“In long-distance racing you get used to dealing with negatives,” he said. “It’s not going to do any good if you’re frustrated.”
Still, he misses home.
“I’m missing all the small things, not the big things,” he said. “I miss the coffee in the morning with my wife and dinner with my kids.”
Waerner is ready to return to his normal life and share the work that comes with a house full of kids and a yard full of sled dogs.
“My wife has been taking care of 35 dogs, the kids, and working as a veterinarian,” he said. Once he gets home, he said, “‘yes, dear,’ will be the answer for everything.”