A Voyage Near the Arctic Circle With Michener

October 13, 1985|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

LITTLE DIOMEDE ISLAND, Alaska — We are at the midpoint between Asia and North America, a few miles south of the Arctic Circle in a part of the world being rediscovered as a destination for adventure travel unlike any other on this planet.

As our World Discoverer expedition ship slowly gets under way in the two-mile-wide strait, the bow is in U.S. waters and the stern is in Soviet waters.

A rubber Zodiac boat with its Eskimo crew and one passenger bounces over the waves toward us out of the Little Diomede harbor. The outboard motor is turned up to full speed. The four crew members are waving at the World Discoverer, as if imploring the ship not to leave behind its most distinguished passenger, who holds up his hand as if saying, "I'm sorry."

A Fitting Climax

My wife Elfriede and I have shared many travel dreams, but in none of our fantasies could we have imagined a more fitting climax to the Tale of the North Pacific we've been living these past two weeks.

It's a story of exploring the past and present of sub-arctic islands between Japan, Siberia and Alaska with James Michener, whose legendary dedication to research while working on a new novel almost got him left behind on Little Diomede.

The ever-alert Society Expeditions cruise staff had just double-checked the name tags down at the boarding deck and found that Michener had not turned over his tag to indicate he was back on board, as every passenger is required to do personally on this expedition.

Campus Home

The story began one afternoon in July when we visited Michener in his campus home at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska. He will live there during six months of each of the next two or three years to research and write his 34th book, a novel about Alaska.

During the other six months of the year he will return to his campus home and the creative writing program he is guiding at the University of Texas in Austin, where he has lived for three years while writing "Texas," his recently completed novel to be published this month.

"With Alaska," he told us that afternoon in Sitka, "I will be returning to the Pacific, where it all started for me."

That was 38 years, 33 books, a dozen films and a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical ago, when an ex-Navy officer won a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for "Tales of the South Pacific."

Throughout all these years, 21 million people have bought copies of Michener's books, and uncounted millions more have read them.

Now the same thing will happen in Texas, where Michener's latest novel will be the theme of the state's 1986 celebration of its 150th year since winning independence from Mexico.

A Growing Interest

Interest in what Michener will do with "Alaska" will grow steadily here the next three years and after publication of the novel.

"Early in my research," he told us in July, "I want to travel through the Aleutian Islands and the islands of the Bering Sea. "That's where Imperial Russia began its conquest of Alaska, which the empire held until the Czar sold it to the United States in 1867.

"If the Soviets ever try to back out on that sale, these islands are where the action could begin again."

We talked about Seattle-based Society Expeditions, which sends its small but luxurious vessels to faraway places of the earth and was ready for a first adventure with the 150-passenger World Discoverer through the Aleutians and the Bering Sea the next month.

Michener and Mari, his American-born wife of Japanese heritage, were planning to take this voyage as a basis for his research. He was gracious enough to say that he was pleased that Elfriede and I were planning to join the same expedition.

We flew to Japan in August, where Mari was visiting friends and relatives. Michener would continue his work in Sitka, then fly in a small plane with the U.S. Immigration Service officers to meet the World Discoverer on the island of Attu, its first U.S. port.

All other passengers, a total of 101, were aboard when we sailed from Kushiro on Hokkaido, the northernmost main island of Japan. Some of our fellow passengers had boarded in the South Pacific, and would continue from Alaska for the first attempt at a west to east crossing through the ice floes of the Northwest Passage.

Experts Aboard

Society Expeditions had prepared for the Aleutian and Bering Sea expedition by bringing aboard as lecturers and guides four nationally known experts on sea birds, marine mammals and the history of these northern islands from earliest geological times to contemporary issues.

Mari Michener, a noted librarian in her own career, married Michener 30 years ago when he was writing "Hawaii," and they have traveled the world together ever since.

Over the rough waters from Attu's Massacre Bay, Michener came toward the Discoverer with the immigration officers and our pilot. All were wearing hooded parkas, boots, padded and water-repellent pants. He and Mari hugged and greeted each other. He soon had the passengers calling him Jim.

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