ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Iditarod veteran Thomas Waerner took home the 2020 race championship title in mid-March. Upon crossing the finish line, however, he went from crowned champion to quarantined: With so many travel restrictions in place, he has not been able yet to return to his home in Norway, instead seeking refuge in the very state in which he won one of sled dog racing's most prestigious events.
"In the race, you're just going down the trail," Waerner said. "You go through the finish line, and I figured out I couldn't go home. Thankfully, I have friends here."
The Iditarod finish this year was particularly different from years past due to global coronavirus concerns becoming more prominent as the race went on. The community of Shaktoolik, for example, requested the race checkpoint in the village be moved outside of city limits because of the pandemic and worry that a musher, volunteer or staff member could potentially bring the virus in and wipe out the entire village.
"It was a strange feeling, other-worldly," Waerner said of the finish surrounding the Burled Arch in Nome, "really strange. I slept a little and started going on the internet, started looking, and said, 'Oh, (expletive)! A lot is going on here. We are probably not getting home, and this is probably not going to be easy.'"
By himself, Waerner could have made it back to Torpa, Norway, though it would've been a trek. He would've had to fly to Seattle, Washington; over the Atlantic Ocean, to Europe; and from there, likely jumped around from country to country to get home. As if that wasn't difficult enough, a team of 16 dogs to get overseas will make it exponentially more difficult. Add in a global pandemic, and a flight for this group of 17 seems near impossible.
Nonetheless, Waerner said he would've accepted two or three full days of travel to get home, but since there is a freeze on his airline for animal cargo, he would've had to leave his four-legged team in Alaska. And if he did leave them, there is no way to know for sure when he might be able to come back.
"I never thought about leaving the dogs," Waerner said. "These are the key dogs that are really important for me, and I don't want to leave them."
So, Waerner, born in England and raised in Norway, has again found a home in Alaska, albeit as a surprise and for a bit longer than expected this time.
"I really like Alaska," he said. "I've been here so many times. It's my second favorite place in the world, right behind Norway."
Starting back in 1984, Waerner began mushing with sled dogs and then became a dog handler for Iditarod legend Roger Legaard in 1990, moving to stints under Charlie Champagne and Roxy Wright a year later. He started sprint racing in Europe and Alaska, specifically, then entered the long-distance racing field in 2003. Five years ago, he ran the Iditarod for the first time, taking 17th place and becoming the 2015 Rookie of the Year in the process.
Even attempting this year's Iditarod, aside from winning the whole thing and cashing in on more than $51,000 in the process, Waerner was ready for a wild ride. While training his team full-time through May was on his agenda, setting up shop in Alaska for almost a month thus far before heading back to Norway was not.
"We've been on some trips already," Waerne said. "They are going training every second day. They are athletes, and they are also high-energy, and they need to train."
Neither the musher nor his dogs have felt cooped up, staying at a large Fairbanks-area property owned by a veterinarian friend of 30 years and taking advantage of Alaska's wilderness, but Waerner said being away from family and missing his wife and kids has admittedly been difficult.
"We have all the social media," he said, "can call and have video, so I keep in touch with them, and I am really lucky that I have really good friends here.”
"I'm enjoying my time here, training the dogs, training ourselves, having good dinners, but it is hard to be away from the family, especially when you don't know when you're going to get back."
A possible plan for the self-proclaimed muscle car fan to return to Norway sooner rather than later comes in the form of an old-school, one-of-a-kind aircraft that might be headed from the Lower 48 to Norway before some of the major coronavirus-related travel restrictions are lifted. The plane would go from Washington State to an aviation museum in Scandinavia.
"It's kind of a longshot and probably won't happen," Waerner said, "but things are pretty good. I'm hoping to get home in the middle of May, but you never know."
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