I’m back from Prince William Sound, from our first research trip of the season. Here’s the first installment from the field. It’s a glorious spring day in Homer, laundry flapping in the afternoon sea breeze, trees showing the first signs of leafing out, crocuses in the messy rock garden, all the baby plants in the window flourishing. A good day to be alive, despite having only 4 1/2 hours of sleep last night, after a string of good days to be alive.
Heading up Prince of Wales Passage against a tide that Craig says is “screaming out of here.” So, to avoid the strongest current, we travel within a 100 yards of a long, cobble beach on Bainbridge Island. On Evans Island, in protected pockets, the snow still mounds over the pillow basalts, covers the muskegs, almost to sea level. On Bainbridge Island, the snow line’s higher. It’s steeper, sheer alder-covered slopes scraped by avalanches. Remnant slides leave white streaks down the russet-brown slopes, like enormous bones laid out. Two sea otters on their backs feed beside a slender murre still in winter plumage, white streaked with black, like photographic negative of the mountains. It’s been a very long trip across the Gulf of Alaska, against the current, wallowing in a storm’s after-lump, barely making seven knots. We left Seward at 10:30 this morning in the rain, and it’s now 6:30 pm, and it's still raining, the Sound shrouded in gray, the water glistening gray. White gulls stand out bright against it. Everything but that white is muted, and I feel that old familiar after-seasickness, rainy weather pressure in my skull, the damped down feeling that brought to mind chemo during my wheel watch, when I sat there fending off nausea, watching the coast, and the line on the computer drawing our route across a nautical chart. That line crept. Because of the swell and my queasiness in it, the crossing from Cape Resurrection to Cape Elrington is almost always an unpleasant, recurring dream, despite the fact that every minute brings me closer to Prince William Sound, to Sanctuary Bay, where we’re headed for the night.
Now a pot of lentil soup simmers on the stove. Craig’s at the helm, bent over Mrs. Dalloway (he never gets seasick, in fact eats peanut butter with a spoon during the crossing), occasionally glancing up and out the window. The autopilot steers the boat. Rising up through and past the slight mind-fog and gut-sick the crossing’s left in my body is a deep inhale, is my head turning from one window to another. I’m here. In this place that’s mother, brother, friend, stranger, other, self, all in one, with its icy sheen of silver-black reflection of the islands on the water, the reflected snow like icicles descending down beneath the surface, like another world under the sea, frozen, timeless, still. Here is the cluster of small islands south of Iktua Bay, where the whales I’ve studied for over twenty years hunt for seals. I scan them through my binoculars. There’s Fleming Island ahead, where a family lived 50 years ago, farming foxes. I can’t see the high peaks of Knight Island above Sanctuary Bay, where we’re headed. They’re hidden in clouds.
Perhaps appropriately, I finished The Emperor of All Maladies before we entered the Sound, when I was lying in the bunk. I stuck the cancer tome at the back of an unused bunk to send to my stepson Lars, who wants to be a doctor. But stashing the book isn’t truly symbolic of some complete letting go. I come to the Sound carrying a hole, a missing breast, a lost season. Can I stitch it up?
I spot four gray bodies of seals deep inside a cove, plastered to a kelp-covered rock. Spruce trees trail beards of lichen. The passage constricts, then widens. It’s always bigger than I remembered, the first day. Before it grows intimate, before it closes around us. Before it takes us in and changes us into a truer, pared down version of ourselves.
We pass within 50 yards of Iktua Rock, count seven harbor seals, two hauled out, the others eyeballing us from the shallows, wallowing like hippos. My binoculars slide up the rock to the gull flock gathered there and land on a pair of Dusky Canada geese and three immature eagles. It’s 7:30 pm now, and the gray just gets grayer. Now I can see Knight Island up ahead, across Knight Island Passage, and there is an isosceles triangle of snow pointing down: the snowfield above Sanctuary Bay, a snow arrowhead to mark where we’re going: home here.
8:09 pm. Crossing Knight Island Passage filled up on lentil soup. I scan with binoculars to the north, to the humped backs of the Pleiades, and think of myself 20 years ago, over and over again driving a small boat between the middle two islands searching for whales, breathing the blue exhaust of the outboard, how many times crossing this passage? Hundreds? I couldn’t have anticipated this other me crossing it now. The one who wonders, after reading the cancer book, what mutated my genes, turned the mad cells on, kicked them into their insane, pitiless drive for life everlasting. The gas spilled on my hands? The wood smoke? The soy milk and soy cheese and soy burger? The oil on Disc Island beach in ’89? The acetone? The hexane? The M&M’s, the Red Vines? I’ve left her, that innocent, oblivious me who didn’t wear sunglasses because she didn’t want her vision of the Sound altered one iota, so much further in the past in one year. I feel like if I trained my binoculars hard enough, I'd see that boat, and her.
8:32 pm and we’re almost across the Knight Island Passage, our final crossing. As the boat heads straight toward Sanctuary Bay, Knight Island looms larger and larger. Now I can make out individual spruce trees, the shapes of snow patches and cloud wisps. I can’t see the entrance to Sanctuary Bay, so it appears we intend to penetrate the island through some secret passageway. Tonight, we’ll sleep within a cradle of the island, enclosed by it. Time to put on my sweater and rain gear, to prepare to drop the anchor. It’s raining steadily. Transparent shreds of cloud catch on the island’s slopes. The water turns green-black, streaked with pewter. The water’s so glassy, it seems like we’re standing still, and the island is moving toward us. The island is moving to take us in, to wrap itself around us.
We took our time leaving Sanctuary Bay this morning. Now we’re slowly motoring toward Point Helen. This has always been our search route. Squire Point to Point Helen. Point Helen to the Needle. The Needle to Point Grace. Point Grace to Evans Point. Evans Point to Fleming Island.
We’re trapped between two fronts, one leaving, one arriving. The clouds are thick but broken in places. Now a fine rain falls. Layers and layers of clouds. Some mountain tops revealed, some entire islands swallowed in a gray batting. A north breeze. The ocean silver soaked in milk. I slept deeply, dreamed again of cancer. Last night I dropped the kayak into the bay and paddled a circle around Sanctuary Bay. I put my palm against the rock wall I imagined so many times last summer. I believed I could experience it precisely, from 5000 miles away, the cold stone against my skin, but the real rock face was covered in barnacles. It was low tide. The barnacles were rough. I’m ground-truthing those meditations that got me through chemo. The place I “went” last summer was Sanctuary Bay but another version, a parallel place. I’d forgotten the precise smells. And it’s not just one, but many. The pungent iodine smell of rock kelp. The resin scent of spruce and hemlock forest. The musk of moss. The sharp smell of old snow. A delicate, sweet perfume of the bay from the boat, all its separate ingredients combined. Now the sun breaks through the cloud bank. Sunlight spangles the water. I’m grateful to my memory for allowing me to come to this place over and over last summer. But the real place is so much better.
We stop and drop the hydrophone off the Point Helen. A Coast Guard helicopter lands on the beach, and four guys in red mustang suits clamber out to service the navigational light marking the entrance to Knight Island Passage. The copter pilot calls us to ask if we’ll relay a message to the Anchorage office, to convey that: “everyone’s safe on deck, ops normal.” When they leave, the pilot flies right over us, tilts the copter back and forth, calls on the radio to thank us again, to wish us a good day. We watch it disappear into the cloud bank over Elrington Passage, on its way to Kodiak. The encounter fills me with well-being. Like oncologists, these are the people who’ll try to save your life if things go wrong, if your ship starts sinking beneath your feet. And their message is what we all want to hear, each day: “everyone’s safe on deck, ops normal.”
That’s surprisingly what it feels like to be here. I didn’t fall to my knees sobbing with relief and joy like I imagined when our boat entered Sanctuary Bay. I cried the new way I do sometimes, an artifact of the last year, sudden, violent sobs with no emotional prelude, no pricking of tears at my eyes, no thoughts. One minute I’m standing on the flying bridge watching the bay widen in front of the boat, the next minute hot tears are running down my face, criss-crossing rain streaks, and sobs break out of my chest, as though I’ve been punched on the sternum. It’s visceral. My body’s reaction, not my brain’s. My brain stands by as a befuddled witness.
Last night, I beached the kayak at the bay’s head and dragged it up onto a thick bed of rock kelp, retrieved my thermos, and clambered up the angular, wet rocks to the stream. It’s mountain snow runoff pouring down a cleft, spilling out of the forest onto the beach. I held the thermos under a rivulet, filled it, drank, filled it, drank. Water so cold my teeth ached, my muscles around my jawbone clenched. Water that tastes like the bay smells, with that slight sweetness to the clarity. I’d been so thirsty for it, what the mountain held in abeyance in its alpine for months, then released. It partly filled the hole in me. I left the thermos in the kayak, then walked along the forest edge, looking for an opening. I ducked under into a dim world of moss covered ground, fallen trees, a steep slope, boulders, all dark green and alive with the sound of the stream’s roar and the buzzes of varied thrushes. I lay face down on a moss ledge, placed one cheek, then the other, on the moss, pressed my chest into what I imagined last summer as earth’s bandage. I pushed my whole face, nose-first, into the moss and breathed in what I imagined last summer as the exhalation of the earth, a respirator, an earth to mouth resuscitation. It was ordinary, in a weird way, without drama. Of course you’re back, the earth said. Of course I’m still here. How could it be otherwise? You’re just one of the creatures that comes here, like the harlequin ducks, the sea otters, the harbor seals, the mergansers, the fish crows, the eagles, the new gulls. Welcome home.