ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Update: Thomas Waerner has arrived safe and sound in Stavanger, Norway, after flying a vintage DC-6B overseas with two dozen sled dogs in tow.
Thomas Waerner, of Norway, took home the 2020 Iditarod Champion title. Courtesy Iditarod Insider.
"It will be good to see the family, spend time with them, and get back to normal life," Waerner said after his arrival Tuesday. "That's going to be nice."
The veteran musher said he intends to sign up for next year's race, but since he only just got home, he'll need to settle and then figure out how he might be able to travel again after that.
"I'll sign up as soon as I have a solution, when I see planes start going again," he said. "I had a great stay in Alaska and am looking forward to coming back."
Original Post: With limited options, a recently-crowned Iditarod champion has decided to hitch a ride home on a historic plane after being stuck in Alaska for several months: Norwegian Thomas Waerner is finally on the homestretch of his journey back overseas, and with no fewer than 24 of the race's four-legged athletes in tow.
"Sometimes, life is a little strange," he said on Sunday evening, shortly before his scheduled departure for Norway. "Looking forward, looking for solutions, trying to figure out what to do, things are suddenly happening."
Waerner, who took home the 2020 Iditarod title in mid-March, crossed the Burled Arch in Nome only to run into extensive travel restrictions both locally and overseas shortly after that. While most of his fellow mushers were able to go home, he missed the boat - or, in this case, the plane.
"I said that I would not leave before I had a solution for the dogs," Waerner said of his trip home, "and I think that was the right decision to make, because I don't think the dogs would make it back until October or something."
So, the veteran musher took a different route.
An aviation museum in Stavanger, Norway, Flyhistorisk Museum Sola, had initially set up a contract for the sale of an airplane Waerner might be able to also use to travel back, since it was being purchased around the time he was set to leave the United States. The plan was centered around a vintage, large-capacity Douglas DC-6B aircraft, most commonly used for cargo in recent years but also capable of passenger transport and dating back to use in the 1940's.
It looked like the perfect opportunity for Waerner to get home with his whole team in tow, something his wife, Guro Waerner, has looked forward to for months now: While her husband has been in Alaska, Guro has been at their home in Norway, taking care of 35 dogs and three children under the age of 8.
“And coronavirus has made it stressful,” she said via message on Monday. “I am happy Thomas is coming home!”
Back in April, Waerner had said he'd considered that plan to take an historic plane back overseas with his dogs "kind of a long shot," and one that "probably wouldn't happen." He was nearly proven correct on the latter front: The sale fell through shortly after it had started to gain traction. With coronavirus affecting world operations and economies, the Norwegian kroner, the country's currency, was also adversely affected, and the museum decided to cancel its deal to buy the aircraft.
However, Waerner's main sponsor, Qrill Pet, stepped in to help facilitate a purchase, and that was that. The plane was sold to the museum, currently operating under tail number N151 and as part of the Everts Air Alaska fleet.
Guro wasn’t too keen on the idea of Thomas and the team flying on a vintage aircraft, but said it made all the difference that doing so meant he would get home sooner.
“I am not feeling great that he is flying in a veteran plane,” she said, “but have to trust all the people who say it is safe. And it was the only option to get him home right now.”
Having been staying and training in and around Ester, Alaska, Waerner and his team of 16 dogs, along with eight more pups from a fellow Norwegian musher's team, will head to Fairbanks late Sunday to catch the overnight flight to Stavanger. They planned on making just one stop, in Yellowknife, Canada, to refuel to make the trip as quick as possible, though the trip will likely require about 22 hours of travel.
The plane will land at the airport, right where the museum is located, Waerner said.
"If you look now, all these airlines are still shut down," he said. "It's not possible to get home. I don't know when I would go home, so I feel lucky that this is actually happening. And it's a good ending of a great journey."
Though Waerner was in Alaska for much longer than planned, he said the state is one of his "favorite places in the world." Along with spending quality time with friends, he's continued his training throughout his time in Alaska, and he plans on returning for next year's Iditarod. Still, while the father of five said it's a bit strange leaving, he's ready to get home and get back to his wife and children whom he misses so much.
"I've been living kind of retired in Alaska; it's been kind of a lazy life," he laughed. "I'm used to always having projects, always having stuff to do. I have some catching up to do!"
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