Two Months Later, the Iditarod Champion May Finally Get a Ride Home

Two Months Later, the Iditarod Champion May Finally Get a Ride Home

Thomas Waerner was contending for the lead in the Iditarod sled dog race in mid-March. Yet as he focused on the race and his dogs, he couldn’t help pick up the whispers at rest stops: Coronavirus. Covid-19. Flights canceled. Borders closed.

When Waerner, 47, crossed the finish line in first place on March 18, winning the race in only his second try, he celebrated. But he also confronted a stark reality in a world much changed since the ceremonial start of the race 11 days before. He knew that he and his dogs might not be able to get home to Norway.

Sure enough, more than two months later, Waerner and the 16 sled dogs are still residents of Alaska.

“I had a feeling when we were still at the Yukon River — you get messages,” he said on Monday. His wife, Guro, who was expecting to meet him at the finish line, decided to fly back to Norway a few days before the race ended.

Still, Waerner refused to be alarmed while on the course. “In a long-distance race, you don’t worry what’s going to be around the next corner,” he said. “I didn’t think about it.”

But because of flight cancellations, especially for cargo planes, and border security rules, he soon realized: “I can get home, but I can’t get home with my dogs. And I won’t leave them.”

Over the past two months, he has lived with friends, taken his dogs for walks and tried to figure out some way, any way, to get out of Alaska. The dogs, though, are not at all bothered about being stranded in the wrong hemisphere.

“Dogs are a lot better than us humans to live in the moment,” Waerner said. “They like to train. We go walking. They enjoy it.”

At home in Norway, Guro, a veterinarian, is taking care of three children younger than 10 and 35 dogs. “She’s been doing an incredible job,” he said. “I’ve got a lazy, easy life. I’m a person with a lot of energy. I had to slow down a lot.”

That lazy, easy life might have continued indefinitely had not an off-the-wall solution emerged. Waerner heard of an aerospace museum in Norway that hoped to obtain an old plane from an air cargo company based in Alaska. But those plans went awry, in part because virus-related upheavals had caused a steep fall in the value of the Norwegian currency.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 27, 2020

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      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

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      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

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      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

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      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

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      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.