What to do when you’re stranded in Alaska by a global pandemic and are trying to get back home to Norway – with 24 dogs in tow.
It’s been quite a three months for dog musher Thomas Waerner, who tells CNN Sport it’s the kind of a story he’ll remember until the day he dies.
The 47-year-old won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March, but canceled flights and travel restrictions have prevented him from returning home to his family.
But fear not, the intrepid adventurer has come up with an innovative escape plan.
He’s booked his passage on a historic aircraft destined for a Norwegian museum, with his team of dogs for company.
“Winning the race and then going back on the plane … I think this was one of the cool things that happen in life,” Waerner told CNN Sport in a phone interview.
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The Iditarod is a legendary long-distance race held every year on the trail between Anchorage and Nome.
The nearly 1,000-mile race covers some of the most extreme terrains on Earth, each team powered by 64 booted paws and a musher’s dogged desire.
This year was Waerner’s second stab at the challenging contest and winning after nine days of hard work was a dream come true for the veteran musher – the person who drives the sled.
Since crossing the finish line, however, he has been holed up with friends in the rural US state whilst he plotted his somewhat unusual route home.
Waerner’s plan was hatched after he read a local airline was trying to sell a DC-6 aircraft – a historic airliner – to The Museum of Aviation History in Sola, Norway.
The plane enjoyed more than 60 years of continuous service, making its maiden voyage in 1946 before flying in three separate continents.
Coincidentally, Waerner’s friends had connections with the plane’s now owner and, with help from his sponsor, he’s managed to hitch a lift home on June 2.
Waerner will be joined on the aircraft by those 24 dogs – 16 of his own and an additional eight left behind by a fellow competitor.
“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.”
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‘A strange feeling’
It’s been more than three months since Waerner left for Alaska. His wife, Guro, had traveled with him but left early when the pandemic began to take hold of the world.
Waerner has five children and 35 dogs back in Norway so he’s aware he has a lot of catching up to do with his veterinarian wife and kids – not forgetting an assortment of household duties.
“I feel a little bad for her having all these jobs and I’m not there to support her at all,” he said.”So it’ll be nice to get home and get back to normal life.”
Whilst stranded on another continent, Waerner has been filling his days by training his dogs and walking with his close friends during what he’s dubbed his “retired life in Alaska.”
He stays in daily contact with his family over video calls and can’t wait to enjoy coffee with his wife and dinner with the kids again.
With the traditional Iditarod winner’s banquet and ceremonies postponed because of lockdown restrictions, Waerner’s personal victory parade hasn’t been quite what he had imagined.
“I really wanted to win the race at one point in my life, and then you suddenly do it,” he said. “I still have to look at the trophy and remember we actually did win, it’s kind of a strange feeling.”
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‘You get really strong mentally’
However, his adventure hasn’t put him off the idea of returning to Alaska and he is keent to participate in next year’s Itidarod.
Waerner firmly believes it’s his ability to deal with the challenges posed by the Itidarod that has helped him overcome his current predicament.
“It’s like a wave of negative things coming against you when you’re racing because you have so much sleep deprivation,” he reflects.
“You have warm weather, cold weather, it’s raining, you’re going through bad trails, good trails and things are happening that you have to deal with all the time.
“I think my long-distance career has helped me because you get really strong mentally [in order] to deal with negative things.”