This Day in History… April 25, 1988

Soviet-Canadian Polar Bridge Expedition

Item #M4267 – Canadian cover carried along the journey, canceled at five key points, and signed by the expedition members.

On April 25, 1988, the Soviet-Canadian Polar Bridge Expedition reached the North Pole.

Plans for this expedition began in 1986 when a group of Soviet scientists and radio amateurs decided they wanted to ski to the South Pole from the Antarctic coast. Over time, their idea changed, and a year later, the new plan was for a team of Soviets and Canadians to ski from the Siberian Coast across the Arctic, to the North Pole, and then continue on to Canada.

Canada #1578b was issued for the 50th anniversary of the Arctic Institute of North America.

In the months leading up to the expedition, the skiers went through extensive training and learned each other’s languages. The Soviet-Canadian 1988 Polar Bridge Expedition (also known as Skitrek) was planned to begin on March 1, 1988, but was delayed two days to March 3 because of bad weather. On that day, the temperatures were about -47ºC with some blizzards. They spent much of the expedition in polar night, which ran until May 23. The skiers didn’t use any sleds, dogs, or vehicles to carry their equipment, but did receive six airdrops of fresh supplies from Russian and Canadian planes.

One aspect of the journey that surprised some of the skiers was that there were many leads of open water. These were caused by the Transpolar Drift Stream, which breaks up the ice and allows it to drift away. There would be times where the expedition might rest for several days, but their position would change several kilometers because of this drift.

The general routine the expedition followed included a 10- to 12-hour trek, after which they set up their 12-man tent, switched on their Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), had a small meal, and spent a few minutes on their shortwave radio. They used these devices to transmit back their location, and if they failed, there was a satellite that would pass overhead every 98 minutes.

Item #M7729 – Soviet Union First Day Cover commemorating this journey.

Along the trip, school children and radio amateurs around the world followed their daily progress through their radio transmissions. One such message, from April 17, stated, “The weather has warmed from a bone-chilling -48 degrees Celsius to the present balmy -25 degrees. Many of our initial injuries attributable to cold and inexperience are resolving and we are learning to live and work together more efficiently as a traveling group… The upcoming ceremonies at the Pole, which will bring us in direct contact with the outside world for the first time since our departure, present an exciting focus for our attention. This is the largest expedition ever to reach the Pole and the one hundred days required for the complete crossing is a long time to spend on the ice. In every respect, these startling adventures represent the tip of the iceberg.”

US #1260 – Amateur radio operators listened to journey as it happened.

The expedition reached the North Pole on April 25, 1988. There, they were met by a group of journalists, dignitaries from the Soviet Union and Canada, and radio operators involved in the mission. They had all been flown in by helicopter. That day there was also a special airdrop of champagne and caviar to celebrate the event. Click here for a photo from that day. After the festivities, the skiers continued on their journey to Canada. They reached Ward Hunt Island, Ellesmere, Northern Canada, on June 1, 1988, marking the end of their successful journey.

Click here to view more photos from the expedition.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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