Messengers With an Arctic Mission

There are lots of beautiful places in the world, but not many people reserve a soft spot in their heart for the charms of the Arctic Circle. Stas Kostyashkin, however, says he fell in love with the frozen North during his army service on the Russia-Finland border. Since then, the 25-year-old Russian has taken part in several Arctic expeditions.


"It is hard and dangerous, but it's like a drug," says Kostyashkin, who is the youngest and only Russian member of a new, six-person polar expedition gearing up for a challenging 18-month trek across the Arctic Circle. The team will face almost constant cold and physical hardships in their efforts to forge an environmental link between Lillehammer, Norway and Nagano, Japan -- the present and future sites of the Olympic Winter games.


"It's not the trip itself that's important," he says. "It's the idea of putting together sport, culture and the concept of environmental protection."


Kostyashkin and his Norwegian, American and Japanese expedition partners will kick off their tour in Lillehammer on Feb. 27, the closing day of the Games. They are scheduled to arrive in Nagano, Japan -- the site of the 1998 competition -- in August 1995, bearing a message encouraging environmental prudence in that city's preparation for the games. Lillehammer, which attracted international praise for its own environmentally friendly Olympic site, is encouraging Nagano to do the same.


There are easier ways of delivering messages, of course. Before the team reaches Nagano, they will have traveled across Russia to the North Urals by dog sled (40 canines are participating in the trek), skied along the coast of the Arctic Ocean through Siberia, and sailed across the Bering Strait and down to Japan, where they will roller ski to their final destination.


The most dangerous part of the trek is expected to be right at the beginning, where, in a 10-meter sailboat, the team will cross the neck of the White Sea, where the tides are the highest in Europe, the water is full of crushed ice and the currents are dangerously unpredictable. The coldest part of the journey will come next winter, when they will cross the Taimyr peninsula and Yakutia, where temperatures can dip as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius.


The head of the ambitious expedition, Norwegian Geir Randbu, 31, is a seasoned Arctic explorer, having taken part in several similar treks, including the Norwegian North Pole Expedition in 1990. Two more Norwegians, including the trip's only woman, Anitra Fossum, 29, are participating in the expedition, as well as one American and one Japanese.


The working language of the team is English, a situation Kostyashkin admits may cause tension during crucial moments of the trip. "The dogs help to make it less psychologically tense," he says. "I can speak Russian with them."


Costs of the $1.5 million project are being covered in part by Russian state committees and non-governmental organizations, including the Gorbachev Foundation. The expedition is also being supported by both the Lillehammer and Russian Olympic committees, as well as by Russia's Northern Sea Fleet, Aeroflot and Rosgidromet, the state meteorological service, which will provide the team with constant radio connection and weather forecasts.


"They are our guardian angels," says Kos-tyashkin, paying them the ultimate Russian compliment. "The polar pilots are real men: pure men who drink pure alcohol."