Heading out from Rocky Bay, the sky, like yesterday, a crazy quilt of clouds, oyster shell, oyster flesh, silty oyster bed, but brighter, so the day feel less languid, more hopeful. Before we left, after breakfast, we kayaked into the Rocky Bay lagoon this morning, said hello to an eagle, several Dusky Canada geese, crows, river otters, a harbor seal, a sea otter, a kittiwake. As always, I imagined unseen brown bears watching us, eyes hidden among alder leaves. Writer Richard Nelson calls that sensation “forest of eyes.” Here, I feel watched. To me, Montague Island is all eye. One enormous dragonfly eye. Many ways to say, “You are alive. Because I see you, you are alive.”
Craig spotted killer whales at the usual spot, off Schooner Rock, an outcropping shaped not so much like a schooner as a crumpled hat. It was the AK2 pod, one of the “host pods” that we last saw in Resurrection Bay in May, relocated now to Hinchinbrook Entrance to feed on chum salmon, and hopefully entertain visiting pods. That’s why we’re here. With its chum salmon streams, the Montague shoreline is a hot spot this time of year. This morning, the AK’s were on the hunt. Their diet, unlike mine, with its detox tinctures, its protein and mineral powder, its frozen fruits and quinoa, brown rice, and oat milk in a box, is simple. If they cleanse and fast, it’s not intentional, just precipitated by the lean months of winter, when the salmon swim far offshore into the Gulf. Today, the whales combed the shorelines of Zaikof Bay, traveling deep inside, to the very head, right through a sea otter nursery. Mother otters held pups on their stomachs, even though already those pups were almost equal in size. When the whales swam close, the otters humped themselves over in what’s called the “teapot” configuration, sticking their heads under water to look around, to keep tabs on the orcas as they passed under. AK pod is unique in that they love the shorelines. They’re one of the only pods in the Sound to slide along shallow beaches with round stones, to rub their bodies on the bottom. They exhale, big bubble clouds rising to the surface, to reduce their buoyancy. As a result, their gray saddle patches are scratched up. But today they didn’t rub. They charged along the beaches, chasing salmon. There are two new calves in AK2 pod this year, one born to a female named Kenai, one to a female named Stellar. We named them Bennett and Ella, after a brother and sister we know on Cape Cod. The human Bennett, eight years old, is the boy being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (I wrote about him in previous entries). And when I see this little orca Bennett, vital and spry, I think of how the human Bennett bounces back after his hell-weeks after chemo, how he too is vital and spry to the core.
I think constantly too of my other Cape Cod friend, Lauren, who is being treated for breast sarcoma, who’s suffering through a summer of intense chemo and unrelenting nausea, no let-up. But when I talked to her, I felt the vital force, strong as a mother orca’s, underneath the travail. With me on this trip I have four small cobalt blue bottles so I can collect healing Prince William Sound water for Lauren, for her altar.
Now 2 pm. I came down from the flying bridge to toast a piece of rice bread on top of the stove, then to spread on some almond butter and blackstrap molasses. And to drink a cup of a grain beverage called Teccino, a fake coffee that tastes nothing like. I do feel more alert now, I admit, so perhaps it fooled my body. The coast guard keeps issuing a “Pon-Pon” on the radio, which means, usually, something dire has happened: “The Coast Guard received a transmission of a woman saying “please, please,” no further information, from the area of Hinchinbrook. Any vessel who heard the transmission, please call the Coast Guard.” But no information was forthcoming.
Maybe it was me, my silent prayers so strong they came through on the radio. “Please, please, Earth, heal Lauren’s cancer, ease her side-effects, lift her spirits. Keep Bennett and Ella and their moms strong. Please, please, let me live to be an crotchety old prune-juice drinking woman. Please, please, keep my loved ones safe. Keep the whales safe. Keep this place safe. Thank you, Earth, ultimate source of healing, amen.”
Now in the bunk, cool air drifting in from the open skylight. After anchoring for the night, we began to hear orca calls on the hydophone. With our directional dish, we honed in on them: they were to the north of us. So we pulled anchor again and headed up, and there they were, now 19 whales, the AK2’s from earlier today, along with the AK1’s, a group of seven, also with a new calf, a little gray speckled thing who kept slapping his tail fast, repeatedly, so it looked like he was being propelled along by an outboard engine tilted too high. He swam with the big boys. We know he’s a he because he showed his pink penis. Not to us, but to the other boys. We call them male play groups, those churning gangs of over-sexed guys, all ages, showing off their junk to each other.
So we had to abandon our plan to eat the halibut Craig caught today for dinner, and settled for lentil soup in tin cups, up on the flying bridge, tracking the whales in the evening light. The clouds broke apart.
Now the sound of a sea lion breathing, chasing a fish, on the hydrophone. And the sound of Craig munching tortilla chips. Unknown, unknowable, the next moment. A bit like finding killer whales. You can drive the boat for a hundred miles searching, or just sit off Schooner Rock and wait and they appear. How I’d like to enter the mind and body of a killer whale for just one day, one hour, even. To know if my impression is right, that they live purely in the moment, in a profound state of aliveness, without guilt or shame or remorse or anxiety about the future. For just one hour to throw off this fraught human soul, this tangled skein of line: the second-guessing, questioning, agonizing, backward and forward glancing, thought-train of this human mind.
“Miles from nowhere. Guess I’ll take my time. Oh yeah, to reach there.” Cat Stevens
A day before Solstice. Craig just pulled up a ling cod from the sea floor beside Schooner Rock. Beside me, the first cobalt blue bottle of healing water for Lauren, collected from what I call Hanuman Creek, which winds through the old growth forest on Montague Island, emptying into the small bight where we anchored last night. We kayaked to shore, stumbled up seaweed-slicked rocks, hiked up the creek, filled the bottle, then cut into the forest. We’ve walked through that stretch of old growth many times, but somehow never before found the two giant hemlocks with chambers in them. The first tree looked like it belonged in a southern swamp, its roots forming a cave underneath it. I squeezed between two roots and crawled inside, lay on the moss staring up at the tree’s underside, the tree’s entire weight above me. The second tree, not far from the first, had a vertical, oval hole in the trunk, where lightning had once struck and charred its heart. I pushed my own trunk all the way through and leaned out the other side, as through a window.
Now we hear distant, intermittent orca calls on the hydrophone. Too intermittent and quiet to use the directional hydrophone. I look out the window. The wide open middle Sound stretches for miles to the distant Chugach Range. Ten miles separate us from Hinchinbrook Island. No clue as to which way to go. To pump himself up for the search, Craig plays Cat Stevens. “So on and on we go. The seconds tick the time out. There’s so much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out,” he bellows.
This whole album speaks to me today. An hour ago, my friend Lisa called me from Homer. She was driving by my road and thought perhaps I was home. “No,” I told her, “I’m in Hinchinbrook Entrance.” I haven’t seen Lisa since an impromptu lunch back in May. We chat, hang up, and once again I fail to say what’s really in my heart. That I miss her. That I need her friendship.
I recently realized that I’d failed to create a true support system for myself when I returned home. I guess I believed it would simply create itself around me, without my conscious intention. Back on Cape Cod, Lauren called together a “healing circle,” friends who come together to surround her with healing energy every couple weeks. After diagnosis, during treatment, you have permission to reach out. Still, it wasn’t easy for me. It took me months to create a healing circle on the Cape. But in some ways it was easier there, where I was a stranger, with nothing to tend and prop up. To my old friends, I wanted to appear strong, a survivor. I didn’t know how to let go of my previous identity. Slowly, it unraveled. Chemo pulled it apart, strand by strand. But it failed to untangle a very old impulse: to be what I believed others needed me to be. Even in the midst of treatment, I wanted to take care of other people’s feelings. To protect my loved ones somehow from the brunt of my experience (well, except Craig and Mara. They got the brunt). To protect myself from being so vulnerable, so in need. I still battle this part of myself who isolates and evades.
“You don’t have to be good,” writes Mary Oliver. “Just let the small animal of your body love what it loves.” I stare out at the gray water, then over at the rocky shoreline where every morning deer walk. My body’s small animal recognizes this place, where it doesn’t have to be good, strong or brave. My body’s small animal relaxes in the gaze of the island, as it relaxes into the presence of a friend. Healing from an encounter with cancer, healing mind, body, spirit, and soul, begins in every moment. Begins now. The body recovers first. Mind, spirit and soul follow. Each moment from now on is healing. Each bite of apple. Each sip of mountain stream water. Each breath of Zaikof Bay air. Each visit with a friend.
Cancer is the turning of the body against itself. Why did it happen? How can I insure it doesn’t happen again? (And I know the answer is, I can’t, completely). Stopping cancer’s death wish, its warped and twisted and determined biochemical process, takes an assault, not only on the cancer, but on the body, on its most basic, regenerative elements: skin, hair, digestive tract, mucus membranes, hormonal system, nerves, bone marrow. How can it not in turn assault the spirit, too? It strips away. But in that is an opportunity. My skin and hair are new now. And maybe my spirit can be too. In moments, I feel miles from nowhere. Miles from that friend, that breath, that water, that healing. I’m sometimes lost. I’m deep inside myself, curled up like a fiddlehead. I want to be safe, and I don’t know how, so I hide. I don’t reach out. When friends ask how I am, I respond, “I’m great. Better every day. I’m pretty much back to normal.” But it’s not true. I’m miles from “normal.” I’m curled up on a mountain slope, in the crook of a rock, in a place between the old and new normal. My friend Margaret, spending time with me at the writers’ conference, described me as “cagey,” told Craig I seemed shell-shocked. That’s the fern, not yet ready, stretching up into the sun. Healing occurs in the solitude of the mountainside. But a fiddlehead grows in a glade of others, also curled in on themselves.
“Where do you think we should go?” Craig asks. “Where do you think the whales are?”
“Maybe north,” I say. “Let’s go north.”
As we throttle up and steer in that direction, Cat Stevens sings above the diesel’s thrum.
“The answer lies within. So why not take a look now.”
We find the whales. The answer: curled within. The answer: the welcome of animals who are my friends. Both are healing.