Thomas Waerner was contending for the lead in the Iditarod sled dog race in mid-March. Yet as he focused on the race and his dogs, he couldn’t help pick up the whispers at rest stops: Coronavirus. Covid-19. Flights canceled. Borders closed.
When Waerner, 47, crossed the finish line in first place on March 18, winning the race in only his second try, he celebrated. But he also confronted a stark reality in a world much changed since the ceremonial start of the race 11 days before. He knew that he and his dogs might not be able to get home to Norway.
Sure enough, more than two months later, Waerner and the 16 sled dogs are still residents of Alaska.
“I had a feeling when we were still at the Yukon River — you get messages,” he said on Monday. His wife, Guro, who was expecting to meet him at the finish line, decided to fly back to Norway a few days before the race ended.
Still, Waerner refused to be alarmed while on the course. “In a long-distance race, you don’t worry what’s going to be around the next corner,” he said. “I didn’t think about it.”
But because of flight cancellations, especially for cargo planes, and border security rules, he soon realized: “I can get home, but I can’t get home with my dogs. And I won’t leave them.”
Over the past two months, he has lived with friends, taken his dogs for walks and tried to figure out some way, any way, to get out of Alaska. The dogs, though, are not at all bothered about being stranded in the wrong hemisphere.
“Dogs are a lot better than us humans to live in the moment,” Waerner said. “They like to train. We go walking. They enjoy it.”
At home in Norway, Guro, a veterinarian, is taking care of three children younger than 10 and 35 dogs. “She’s been doing an incredible job,” he said. “I’ve got a lazy, easy life. I’m a person with a lot of energy. I had to slow down a lot.”
That lazy, easy life might have continued indefinitely had not an off-the-wall solution emerged. Waerner heard of an aerospace museum in Norway that hoped to obtain an old plane from an Alaska-based air cargo company. But those plans went awry, in part because virus-related upheavals had caused a steep fall in the value of the Norwegian currency.
“I just called the museum and said, ‘Maybe we can work something out,’” Waerner said. With help from his sponsors, he was able to book passage for himself and his dogs, on the 1950s-era plane. The hope is to take off on June 2.
The flight will stop twice in Canada — in Yellowknife of the Northwest Territories and on Baffin Island in Nunavut — and possibly in Reykjavik, Iceland, before arriving in Norway, reported Teknisk Ukeblad, a Norwegian engineering magazine.
“I think it’s going to be an adventure,” Waerner said. “It’s not going to be a luxury trip. It’s a cool story. It’s a great ending to the race.”
Might the long flight and a potentially rough ride bother the dogs? Hardly, Waerner said.
“The dogs are so balanced,” he said. “When you put them in the boxes, they just sleep.”