Thomas Waerner and his sled dogs won the Iditarod—but got stranded in Alaska. They’re finally home.
On March 18th, Thomas Waerner and his sled dogs won the iconic 2020 Iditarod race in Alaska, crossing the finish line after spending nine days, 10 hours, 37 minutes, and 47 seconds on the trail. At the finish line Waerner pet and fed his dogs, telling reporters that all praise for the win should go to his dogs. “The dogs are the performance athletes. We are the mushers and we get the credit and everything, but the dogs are incredible athletes.”
The Iditarod, often called “The Last Great Race,” covers 1,000 miles of extreme Alaskan terrain from Anchorage to Nome. The race was developed in 1978 to help keep sled dogs as an important part of Alaskan culture. It honors the 1925 serum run, in which dog sled teams were the only option to transport urgently needed diphtheria antitoxin, and a dog sled relayed to save the small town of Nome.
But after their impressive Iditarod win, the journey wasn’t over for Waerner and his dogs who traveled from Norway to compete. Because of COVID-19’s travel restrictions and canceled flights, Waerner found himself trapped in Alaska with his 16 sled dogs for months. Waerner wasn’t willing to leave his beloved dogs behind and so remained in Alaska trying to find a way to get home. Back in Norway his wife, Guro, who is also the sled team’s veterinarian, held things down with the couple’s five children and 35 dogs. She had left Alaska just before the pandemic locked down travel.
Because of the pandemic, Waerner had to think outside of the box in order to get home with his dogs. Unable to find a way home via traditional means, Waerner was last week finally able to make the 20-hour flight from Alaska to Norway via an unconventional method—a 1960’s era DC-6B airplane. The plane just happened to be bound for Norway and its new home in an aviation museum. The journey was not without incident. The plane hadn’t been used since the 1970s and Waerner explained to the New York Times that 40 minutes into the flight there were engine problems and they had to return to Fairbanks, Alaska. Thankfully, after a few hours of mechanical work, the plane was able to take off and this time made the 20 hour journey with a fuel stop in Yellowknife, NWT. Supporter’s meet the flight in Yellowknife and helped walk the dogs before Waerner and his canine crew re-boarded and continued on their way, finally landing in Norway after spending three months trapped in Alaska. The unpressurized flight was very loud and cold but Waerner and the dogs safely made the journey home, bringing an official end to the successful—if much longer than planned—Iditarod adventure.
The mental strength required to push through a grueling race like the Iditarod is what Waerner credits for helping him to get through being stranded in Alaska with the dogs after their victory: “Life is a little strange,” he laughed, admitting the situation was all a bit surreal. “But I am a forward, positive guy. If you’re just positive you will always find solutions and you will overcome your obstacles,” Waerner explained in an interview to CNN Sports. Now that they are home, Waerner says he and the sled dog team will be taking some time off to rest and then get back to what they love—running trails and training. Waerner has told media outlets that despite this year’s ordeal, he and the dogs will return to Alaska in 2021 to defend their 2020 win. You can follow along with their adventures on Instagram.
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