The expedition that set off a “Russians in Yellowknife” panic earlier this month has completed the first stage of a test drive across the Canadian Arctic.
The TransGlobal Car Expedition created headlines worldwide when a corporate jet chartered by its leader, Russian former oil and gas executive Vasily Shakhnovsky, was grounded in Yellowknife.
Transport Canada ruled the plane broke new Canadian airspace rules that prohibit Russian-chartered flights, a sanction brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Members of the TransGlobal Car Expedition maintain their team includes Canadian, Icelandic and Ukrainian representation alongside Russian members. The expedition’s stated goal is to cross the globe by vehicle, using modified Ford F-150 pickups and specially designed amphibious trucks.
The expedition, minus Shakhnovsky, has now accomplished stage one of its mission in Canada’s North: driving the vehicles from Yellowknife to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Stage two will take the team from Cambridge Bay to Resolute.
After departing Yellowknife last week, the group made swift progress along the winter road toward the Northwest Territories’ diamond mines before moving off-road and heading slowly toward Bathurst Inlet.
By March 14, the team had reached the inlet, which marks an access point to the Arctic Ocean.
“First world first achieved,” Andrew Comrie-Picard, a Canadian race car driver and broadcaster who is part of the expedition, wrote in a message from the inlet, referring to the trip by vehicle from Yellowknife to the Arctic Ocean.
“Sorry VS can’t be here,” he added, using the initials of Shakhnovsky, who left Canada by scheduled flight after the grounding of the corporate jet he had chartered.
The seven expedition vehicles reached Cambridge Bay late on Tuesday, March 15, completing the 700-km first leg of the test. The expedition plans to complete the same journey “for real” early next year as part of a much larger trip that starts and ends at the foot of South America, crossing the Americas, Europe, Africa and Antarctica.
The test was not without problems.
Communication issues were reported once the vehicles reached sea ice, while a hybrid pickup broke down outside Cambridge Bay following a blizzard and had to be towed.
“The expedition managed to keep up with our reasonably planned timeline and the sea ice was mainly good,” the team wrote in an Instagram post.
“However, progress on the difficult terrain south-west of Bathurst Inlet was very slow as our team had to find their way and weave through lots of big rocks standing up out of the snow.”
The test was expected to resume on Thursday morning with the Cambridge Bay-Resolute leg.
After Russia-related unease died down, reaction to the expedition in the Northwest Territories has focused on two elements of the trip.
On one hand, reservations have been expressed about the group’s due diligence in communicating its plans to the various governments and groups asserting rights over the land between Yellowknife and Resolute.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, referring to the trip as a “so-called expedition” in the legislature last week, raised the prospect of the group requiring a rescue should something go wrong, and asked whether the expedition had the relevant permits. (Premier Caroline Cochrane, responding, said no form of permit really existed for a trip like this. The expedition, separately, apologized for what members acknowledged was a lack of communication with governments before its arrival.)
Others have welcomed the trip as a sign of interest and investment in the Northwest Territories as two years of Covid-19 public health measures ease. The territory dropped most of its travel restrictions at the start of March.
Katrina Nokleby, the Great Slave MLA, said the group’s arrival was “quite wonderful” and represented a “great opportunity” for sectors like the NWT’s film industry. Caroline Wawzonek, the territory’s industry minister, said the NWT Film Commission had “been engaged” by the expedition team.