THERE aren't many ``firsts'' left in the exploration of the earth. But a joint Soviet-Canadian expedition hopes to strike one more item off the ``firsts'' list - a complete crossing of the Arctic Pole, from the Soviet Union to Canada, on skis. Just getting to the North Pole is becoming somewhat old hat.
A Japanese got there on a motorcycle earlier this year. In 1986, an eight-member American expedition repeated Robert Peary's 1909 trip by ``mushing'' there with a team of 49 dogs, unsupported by airdrops of supplies (though injured expedition members were airlifted out and the entire expedition got picked up once it reached the pole). Others have traveled to the pole on submarines, airplanes, or skimobiles.
But apparently no one has crossed the entire ``top'' of the world on skis.
``This expedition is very dear to the heart of the Soviets,'' says Paul Weinzweig, president of Social Engineering Associates, an Ottawa consulting firm managing the Canadian side of the adventure. ``They see it as an act of peace and bridge-building.''
The expedition will also carry out scientific experiments and observations in geophysics, glaciology, pollution, and medicine. They hope, for example, to confirm or disprove a Soviet scientist's theory that a second magnetic pole exists on the Canadian side of the Arctic.
Expedition head Dmitri Shparo led a 612-mile ski trek from the Soviet Union to the North Pole in 1979 and was, as a result, awarded the highest honor in the Soviet Union - the Order of Lenin.
This winter's adventure, heading from the Severnaya Zemlya Islands in the Soviet Union in early March to Cape Columbia on the extreme northern tip of Canada's Ellesmere Island some 100 days later, will cross 1,075 miles of mostly frozen water. The 11 or 12 members of the expedition will carry packs, initially weighing more than 100 pounds, that include pneumatic dinghy boats for use over open water.
Other foreseen hazards include thin ice, pressure ridges, polar bears, and air temperatures that could range from 40 to 60 degrees below zero F. at the start of the trip to a relatively mild 15 to 32 degrees above zero near the end.
Dr. Shparo has insisted that to make the expedition as ``pure'' as possible, there should be no outside contact with the expedition other than six airdrops and radio conversations. The team will carry two emergency radio buoys of the international rescue system, Sarsat (Search and Rescue Satellite). Radio connections and astronavigation will help the team keep track of its exact location.
The six Canadians, chosen from several hundred applicants, will be further reduced to four. The skiers are learning something of each others' languages - French, English, and Russian.
The expedition is being financed jointly. On the Soviet side, the youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda will collect contributions from Soviet scientific enterprises. In Canada, Social Engineering Associates expects to raise $2 million (US$1.5 million) through commercial endorsements and sale of television and other news media rights. to the story.
Dr. Weinzweig says expedition members ``will eat cornflakes on the North Pole,'' and tell their opinion of the product before a camera, if that helps to raise funds. The Soviets, he adds, have said they will participate in such promotion and advertising, but have ruled out sponsorship by tobacco or alcohol companies, . They don't want to promote those products, in view of the current anti-alcohol campaign in their country.
Weinzweig's Russian-born wife, Polina Zeliskaya, an engineer and chairman of the consulting firm, is helping to coordinate expedition activities with the Soviets. Weinzweig and his wife left Friday for Moscow to talk with Soviet officials, including party leader Mikhail Gorbachev, about the expedition, and about a plan to give management courses to Soviet executives in Canada.
Social Engineering Associates' promotion piece is headlined, ``Who will be the next Armand Hammer?'' Dr. Hammer, head of Occidental Petroleum, is renowned for his Soviet business contacts. The text contends that sponsors of the Canadian side of this expedition ``will receive special considerations with regard to business opportunities in the Soviet Union, unprecedented media coverage throughout the USSR, prestigious attention, and meetings with the highest officials.''
The expedition has the blessing of the Soviet Embassy here and the Canadian External Affairs Department. Alexander Yakovlev, a former Soviet ambassador to Canada and a leading member of the ruling Politburo, also backs the mission, Weinzweig says.
Weinzweig notes that Canada has two superpowers as neighbors - the United States to the south and the Soviet Union over the North Pole. He contends the joint ski expedition could lead to other cultural and business ties and enhance Canada's role as ``mediator'' between the superpowers.