Photo credit: QRILL Paws

On March 18, Norwegian Thomas Wærner was crowned champion of the iconic Iditarod dogsled race. Wærner’s victory made him the third Norwegian to win the race, following in the footsteps of Joar Leifseth Ulsom in 2018 and Robert Sørlie in both 2003 and 2005. Although Wærner was quick to finish the race, the same cannot be said about his return home from Alaska. The coronavirus had other plans for him.

Because of flight cancellations and travel restrictions, Wærner was unable to return to Norway after claiming his victory. Instead, he spent an additional 11 weeks with friends in the Fairbanks area. One of these friends was musher Arleigh Reynolds, who graciously hosted Wærner—and his 16 dogs.

Throughout his two-month stay in Alaska, Wærner had no way of knowing when he’d be able to return home. He dubbed his time there as “retired life in Alaska.” In a stroke of extraordinary luck, he stumbled across the information that a local airline was trying to sell a 64-year-old DC-6 aircraft to The Museum of Aviation History in Sola, Norway. Serendipitously, Wærner’s friends knew the owner of the plane, which resulted in him successfully booking a one-way ticket home on June 2 with precious cargo: 24 dogs.

The flight took off on Monday morning and lasted about a day before arriving safely in Norway. In an interview with NRK, Wærner stated, “I was allowed to pilot for an hour, so I got (that) ticked off on my bucket list.” He also made sure to mention how relaxed and well-behaved the dogs were as travelers.

Although Wærner faced many complications surrounding this year’s Iditarod, he is eager to participate next year and return to Alaska. He believes the challenges he’s faced have ultimately helped him become even more mentally strong.