Russia-Canada team tests out Santa's commute

Members of the "Polar Ring" expedition test out the vehicles they plan to drive 7,000 kilometres over the sea ice from Russia and Canada via the North Pole. The photo is from a 2007 expedition in the Barents Sea of the Russian Arctic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Polar Ring Expedition

A group of Canadian and Russian explorers will set out to make history this week by driving from Russia to Canada over the North Pole.

Yes, driving.

"It's the first time ... someone will be crossing the Arctic Ocean with a wheel-based vehicle," said Mikhail Glan, a Russian emigre living in Vancouver. "It's a very interesting project."

The eight-member Polar Ring team, which includes two Canadians, is to leave Thursday from an island in the Russian Arctic and roll straight north until it hits the pole. The team will then gas up and take on supplies at an ice camp used by tourists before heading south to Resolute, Nunavut.

"We plan to drive from Russia to the North Pole ... Then we'll drive all the way to Resolute Bay," Glan said from Moscow. "It's pretty simple."

Simple, that is, until you consider that the trip is expected to take about four months and cover 7,000 kilometres in one of the most forbidding parts of the planet — nearly half of it sea ice.

At the North Pole, the sun won't even rise until March 19. The average temperature is -34 C.

And while southern lakes may freeze into easily crossed white tabletops, the Arctic Ocean does anything but. The thick ice shifts and moves with winds and currents, throwing up huge ridges when pans bump together and leaving wide stretches of frigid, open water when they don't.

This year is likely to be even tougher than most. There's less ocean covered by ice now than there has been in any winter since satellite records began.

"There could be lots of open water," said Glan. "We're not sure that it will freeze. Most probably not, so we need to drive around."

But that's OK. The ice buggies can float.

"We can cross pretty big pieces of open water, but it definitely will slow us down. We hope that the weather will be more or less friendly."

The buggies are an entirely new design, Glan said.

Other drive-the-sea-ice expeditions have used vehicles that are heavy and tank-like. A 2009 group drove modified U.S. military Humvees between the Nunavut communities of Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay. Polar Ring's vehicles, powered by nine-litre diesel engines, are relatively light, and look like beefed-up, closed-in dune buggies with gigantic balloon tires.

Proving the worth of those vehicles is one of the reasons for the trip. Glan said a successful drive would demonstrate that wheeled transportation could be an efficient way to get around in the High Arctic — useful to everyone from scientists to resource companies to search-and-rescue teams.

The Polar Ring members, who will post their progress on the web, will also take myriad scientific measurements and track polar bears.

But Glan said one of the main reasons for the trip is to get people excited about the Arctic and Arctic exploration. The Russia-to-Resolute drive is one leg in a multi-year project to retrace the steps of early explorers and to link circumpolar nations with a thin strand of tire tracks on the ice.

"It will help to promote activities in the Arctic and maintain interest in that," Glan said. "It helps attract attention to the history of Arctic exploration.

"Our goal is to promote it to attract attention, to make it interesting for people. This is a good eye-catcher."

Those aren't the only reasons to go, of course.

"Some people ask, 'Why do you want to do that?' Other people, they don't have to ask," said Glan.

"It's exploration. It's adventure. It's a great thing."

The team, funded by a variety of Russian corporations and foundations, hopes to arrive in Resolute by late May or early June.It plans to complete the circle in 2014 by driving from Resolute along the Alaskan coast back to Russia.

Glan said Polar Ring has filled in all the necessary paperwork to cross the border into Canada.