Thomas Waerner of Norway, the Iditarod sled dog race winner who was trapped in Alaska for three months, made it home today after a 20-hour flight.
His unconventional ride was a 1960s-era DC-6B airplane that happened to be bound for an aviation museum in Norway. It was an improvised solution after numerous commercial and cargo flights from Alaska were canceled and Waerner found he could not get his 16 dogs home. Flying back without them was not an option, he said.
The flight, on a plane that has not been used for regular commercial travel since the 1970s, was not without incident.
“We started at 3 a.m. in Fairbanks, went 40 minutes, and we had problems with an engine,” Waerner said. “We had to turn around and go back.”
A few hours of work by mechanics, and the plane was ready to try again.
The cabin was unpressurized.
“The old engines make a lot of noise,” Waerner said. “It was really loud. And it was pretty cold in the plane.”
Nothing much bothered the dogs though.
“As soon as you put them in the box, they fall asleep,” he said.
The plane could not make the 3,800 miles uninterrupted, so a stop was made after 4 1/2 hours in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Although it slowed Waerner’s return, it was a good opportunity for the dogs to get out and exercise.
About 30 people who had heard of his odyssey turned up at the Yellowknife airport.
“That was really fun,” Waerner said. “They helped us walk the dogs.”
After a 16-hour second leg to Sola, Norway, and a nine-hour drive, Waerner made it home at 6 a.m. local time today. Despite the early hour, some friends and acquaintances were waiting in the road with flags to celebrate his win and return.
“That was a great feeling,” he said.
The dogs were pleased too.
“It’s the same as for me and you: It’s nice for them to be in their own bed,” Waerner said. “They were excited to be home.”
They will get some well-earned rest.
“This time of year for them, it’s having fun, turning them loose and letting them play, not much training,” Waerner said.
It won’t last forever, and that’s OK with the dogs.
“Working dogs like to work,” he said. “You can’t just leave them in the yard.”
Waerner plans to return to Alaska to defend his Iditarod title next year.