Cabin Radio's Ollie Williams in front of a Yemelya amphibious vehicle, part of the TransGlobal Car Expedition. Luisa Esteban/Cabin Radio
“People are trying to portray this as a joyriding rich guy,” said Katrina Nokleby. She paused. “Well… yeah. But I find that to be a very simplistic view.”
When the Transglobal Car Expedition arrived in Yellowknife last week, the team made headlines around the world. Its members arrived in an aircraft chartered by Russian former oil and gas executive Vasily Shakhnovsky – and the plane was immediately grounded.
Since the end of February, Canada’s sanctions in response to the invasion of Ukraine have included an order that aircraft owned, operated, or chartered by Russians avoid Canadian airspace. The corporate jet Shakhnovsky chartered landed two days after that ban was announced.
Last week, as the drama unfolded, the expedition team did not comment – allowing the internet to ponder what Russians might be doing in Yellowknife that would earn their plane a grounding for an airspace violation.
This week, the group’s members are prepared to talk. And they have an extremely ambitious project to talk about, even if it’s one some people might find bizarre – and exactly the kind of thing a wealthy Russian would dream up.
They’re trying to drive across the globe, south to north and back again. Oceans and sea ice be damned.
Later this year, the team will start at the southern tip of South America, wend its way up to Yellowknife, then use specialized Ford F-150s and amphibious vehicles named Yemelyas to reach the North Pole via Resolute, Nunavut. Dropping down through Greenland, Europe and Africa, the group will cross Antarctica by vehicle then return to South America, completing the loop. The whole thing is expected to take more than a year.
Two legs of that trip are so fraught with peril that the team needs a test run to be sure things will work during the expedition proper. One of those is Antarctica, a test completed in December. The other is Yellowknife to the North Pole. That’s why the team landed in the Northwest Territories last week.
“It’s the opposite of a secret mission,” said Andrew Comrie-Picard, a Canadian race car driver and TV host who is part of the expedition, in a Buffalo Airways hangar at Yellowknife Airport that has been taken over by the team’s vehicles. “An issue was that we didn’t announce ourselves ahead of time very well.”
While TransGlobal had booked hangar space well in advance, few people in the NWT knew they were coming. Comrie-Picard was on the phone with senior officials from three different territorial government departments, making up for lost time, when Cabin Radio arrived on Monday. The expedition will also cross plenty of Indigenous traditional land.
“Unfortunately, we were late to the game because the dialogue started off in a different direction of ‘What are y’all doing here?’ But now that we’re having it, we’re finding everybody very positive,” said Comrie-Picard.
“And that’s consistent with how we felt all around Yellowknife. Now that we’re speaking with the governments, both of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut – and also we just began speaking with the Dene Nation – we’re finding people very positive and very, very helpful.”
Team has Ukrainians, too
Shakhnovsky, once reported by Forbes to have wealth well in excess of $1 billion, is no longer in Yellowknife. He departed via scheduled flight once it became apparent that the chartered jet’s arrival in the city was causing an international diplomatic incident.
However, the rest of the team remains. The group involves more than just Russians on a vehicular world-conquering jaunt. According to Comrie-Picard, a Ukrainian who is part of the team in Yellowknife has family near the front line of the Russian invasion. The group also has Icelandic members.
Nokleby, the territorial politician representing Yellowknife’s Great Slave district and an engineer by profession, is a convert. Having spent time with the expedition, she thinks some of the reaction to last week’s grounded-aircraft debacle was “quite xenophobic.”
“When I heard the story of the Russian billionaire, including his half-Ukrainian wife, I feel this is a great lesson. Are we really holding these people accountable for what a crazed despot is doing? This is much deeper and more complex than Russia bad, Canada good,” Nokleby told Cabin Radio on Monday.
She sees the expedition’s arrival for its Yellowknife-Resolute “test run” as a marker of good things to come as the Northwest Territories emerges from two years of pandemic-related restrictions.
“This gave me a renewed enthusiasm for things opening up. It’s been so blah, terrible, a down period for the past couple of years. Something like this sparks global interest,” Nokleby said.
“We need that. To me, this is almost perfect timing. In a year, when people are maybe more comfortable, we’re going to have the TransGlobal crew come through for real.”
Vehicle technology for the North?
The full expedition is scheduled to pass through Yellowknife in January 2023, though whether it will hit that marker is anyone’s guess. Covid-19, supply chain issues, and even protests against Covid-19 restrictions in southern Canadian cities have interfered with the group’s timeline so far.
Watching the plane get grounded by Canadian authorities (it was released last week) was just the latest hiccup.
“When we had one more thing go wrong it was like, OK, what can possibly happen next?” said Emil Grimsson, an Icelandic expedition member and chair of Arctic Trucks, who is tasked with operating specialized Ford F-150 pickups during the trip.
The test drive is set to depart on Wednesday this week, taking the team along the ice road toward the NWT’s diamond mines before peeling off at the Diavik mine, reaching Contwoyto Lake across the border with Nunavut, then pressing on to Bathurst Inlet, Cambridge Bay, and Resolute. That journey is forecast to take nine days.
Grimsson will use satellite imagery to navigate the sea ice over which the vehicles must pass to complete the route. He learned how to do that in 2007, when the TV show Top Gear hired him to help them film a similar trip. “That was the beginning of my fever for doing expeditions,” he said.
The adapted F-150s utilize technology refined in Iceland to conquer virtually any terrain, developments the country now uses to ensure its rescue vehicles can go almost anywhere. The Yemelya vehicles are a unique design devised by team member Vasily Elagin, a mountaineer and explorer who wanted to build a car that could reach the North Pole.
“The Ford trucks are used in Iceland as search and rescue vehicles every day. There are 27 of these vehicles in Antarctica in order to cross the shelf and do things there. There are none in Canada besides the ones behind me, that we actually built in North America,” said Comrie-Picard.
“We hope to build more. We’re not here to sell vehicles but if either coastguard or lands or private entities – mines, whoever – can use these type of vehicles, were very interested to help.”
“In Iceland,” said Grimsson, “we use these vehicles as a normal vehicle. You go out shopping but you can also cross the glacier. You can also go over highland rivers.
“It revolutionized our transport not only for rescue but for power companies and others, and it also built up a new type of tourist industry in Iceland.
“This has potential here in Canada. I just don’t know exactly how, and I would like to learn.”
Nokleby thinks she sees that potential, particularly in the tires the expedition will use, which can operate at extremely low pressures said to barely leave a mark on the terrain beneath them.
“The tires can be deflated to about three psi, which is less than someone walking on the tundra. That has ramifications for us as we continue on with exploration and mining,” Nokleby said, adding that climate change will force the Northwest Territories to acquire new solutions to old problems.
“If ice roads become unusable, maybe we have to go overland – and this is a way to do it.”
“The tires have very little impact on the land,” said Comrie-Picard, “because we want to go and tread lightly the whole way.
“All of this is proving the concept that these vehicles can work. And next year, when we get here at about the same time of year, we’ll be able to continue the round-the-world expedition – because we’ve already pre-run this route.”
When the real thing rolls around, there will be cameras in tow. Even on Monday, a filmmaker for National Geographic – which is accompanying the expedition and has its logo on the vehicles – buzzed about the hangar.
That excites Nokleby, too, who thinks this is an example both of the kind of cold-weather testing Yellowknife hopes to attract and TV coverage that will sell the territory to viewers.
“Having National Geographic along filming everything, there is exposure of the North to a global audience. We can highlight things like climate change and get people invested,” the NWT’s former tourism minister said.
“And the exposure has tourism potential. If we want to build a separate or parallel economy to resource extraction, what better way than having our people showcased on National Geographic?”
While the expedition admits it could have had a better arrival in Yellowknife, Nokleby thinks last week’s experience shows the territory can also work harder to welcome this kind of trip and the investment it brings.
“What we had here was a perfect storm,” Nokleby said. “I don’t feel our government is easy to navigate. The communications are bad, it’s very hard to find information on government websites, and we live in a day and age when if things aren’t spelled out clearly, people miss the subtleties, the nuances.
“There was some prep work that didn’t get done but I don’t think that was with ill intent. We need to improve, as a government, what we’re putting out there to a global market.
“For us to jump all over this faulting them for what they don’t know? They could have been more proactive, but we can do better.”
“When you’re looking in from a distance,” said Comrie-Picard, “it’s hard to know how things really operate on the ground. And so we’re learning that, and that’s on us. And we’re really happy to be opening those doors.”
Video: Camera/Editing Luisa Esteban Reporting/Editing Ollie Williams