This morning, the boat turned slowly around the anchor in Marsha Bay, tucked into one of its corners. The clouds enveloped the slopes around us. A front moved in last night, and I woke at one point to pouring rain. Mist drifted across the forested slopes. The Sound is a rainforest, and this is why. This is its wardrobe, its palette, the greens damped down, muted by gray, rain so fine it mists the windows like breath, mists our faces.
Now, the other end of the day, we’re anchored in Sanctuary Bay, the boat not turning at all, the water glossy still, reflecting the cloudy sky. Beside me are four cobalt blue bottles filled with water for Lauren. And two eagle feathers. And the antler of a deer.
The wind was blowing this morning out in Montague Strait, so we took it easy, working on our computers, eating breakfast, then suiting up for a hike up to the lake above Marsha Bay. My friend Molly Lou and I found it twenty years ago, when we lived and worked out of a field camp on Squire Island for months at a time. We were always on the lookout for ponds and lakes to swim in, and the hollow in the landscape above Marsha Bay had lake written all over it. I remember scrambling up to the lake, the granite rock we found, our plunges into the deep, frigid water, the sun on the rock face at the lake’s far end. Craig and I decided to follow along the stream connecting lake to bay. He reached the stream’s outflow ahead of me, and paused, looking for the best place to get out. As my kayak drifted near, I saw a tiny fawn just a few feet from Craig, standing in the stream. I couldn’t have been more than knee high, brown with white speckles across its back, impossibly small and beautiful, and somehow soft, as though its bones hadn’t yet solidified into a real deer yet. “Craig, look,” I said, and as soon as Craig turned his head, the fawn walked away, and that’s when I saw the mother standing, head and ears erect, at the edge of the woods, staring at us with wide black eyes. The fawn trotted past her and she gave it a nudge with her hip, toward the woods, while never breaking eye contact with us. There was something very human in that gesture, the way a mother might shove her child behind her while facing down a threat. Only when her fawn was safe in the trees did she turn and disappear. Craig and I looked at each other in disbelief. When I got out of my kayak and dragged it above tide-line, I found a deer antler in the creek, green with moss.
We hiked up along the stream’s edge as it tumbled down from the lake, cutting a gully through the muskegs. Soon our pants were wet, and our heads surrounded by a cloud of black flies. Not only because of them did we not linger long at the lake, or swim as I’d imagined we might, despite the rain. Perched in trees around the stream’s headwaters were mew gulls with nests nearby, and they scolded us intensely as we stood looking at the lake. Craig pointed out three chicks, just tiny brown balls of fluff clustered together on the water, the adults swooping over us, leaving them vulnerable to glaucous-winged gulls or eagles. So we left the lake to the gulls, and to the memory of Molly Lou and me, plunging into the water, coming up with our skin tingling. On the way back down, I filled one of the blue bottles for Lauren of that lake’s water. I think of it as a secret, that lake, tucked up above a bay that’s almost impossible to enter for the rocks and islands guarding its mouth.
Hiking through a muskeg, I noticed a strange cluster of pinkish-white flower-cups on a branch. I’d been thinking how all the wildflowers are to me like old friends, like the birds I hear. Blueberry flowers, shooting stars, columbine, purple asters, bog candles, deer cabbage. I thought for a moment, as the leaves on the branch looked so familiar, that I’d managed to never see this plant’s flower before. And then I saw it was a blueberry bush. And their flowers are long past, already forming hard green berries. But these flowers had never stopped growing. They were three times normal size, unnaturally thick-petaled. I pointed them out to Craig. It had to be some form of cancer, some uncontrolled cell divising. I looked around. Here, in this purest of places, a flower had cancer. I thought of all my wonderings as to what might have caused cancer in my breast, how I might have prevented it. How fruitless. In that innocent flower I saw myself reflected, saw Lauren reflected. If only pure water, rain, mist, and wind could heal us all, not only in spirit, but in body too.
And tonight, I kayaked into the “inner sanctum,” the lagoon of Sanctuary Bay, as the tide was high, to fill the last bottle. Mist drifted across the lagoon, and I paddled through it. I floated in the middle of it and took out the bottle. May cancer never again enter our lives, I prayed, as I dipped my hand into the lagoon, cold from all the snowmelt high on the slopes. May Lauren and I be free of cancer forever. That water: sea rushing in on the tide, snow melting way up high, rushing down the mountain sides, spilling as waterfalls, pouring into the lagoon on all sides. A constant cycling of water. Strange algae and eelgrass streaming in its currents. Pale white sea anemones anchored to rocks. Sea paper suspended from overhanging logs. Lion’s mane jellyfish pulsing by my kayak.
When I got back to the boat, I paged through an old journal from 1991, when I was out in the Sound with Molly Lou, a time when I struggled mightily with depression, and even at times contemplated suicide. I reread, with sadness, this sentence from that time: “This neglected soul inside me must use these dark thoughts to wake up; and yet no matter what the outward circumstances of my life, the question of suicide remains unanswered, and its lure is like a bell ringing over and over, saying it is inevitable.” It was not. And I no longer hear that bell, in fact, I hear its opposite. I wish I could reach back and find that 29 year-old me, but when I read further after this statement, I see that in some ways, a part of me did. When I read the following entry, something about it felt connected to my kayak paddle into the inner sanctum tonight. It’s both the prayer and its answer, for Lauren and for me. It’s an older, wiser voice that’s been inside me all along. It’s my hope for the water I will send to her.
There is a very small and simple image that grounds me to life. It is small and round, as if I were seeing it through a keyhole. It is of a woman who is some distant, strong me, and she sits in the grasses and wild plants, alone. That world is green; wildflowers speckle the meadow where she sits looking at single shooting star flower, which is clear and vivid in my view. A breeze blows, yet its utterly calm, as though peace and wind were synonyms. There aren’t words, just her pure and simple self, alive among other live things, with as much right to be as the plants and birds. This woman moves through the world with an invisible climate close to her body, which is the air and light and scent and sound of that green place, which is always with her. Maybe it’s her soul, and she wears it outside her body. It’s what she breathes. Every year, she makes a long pilgrimage to that place to renew it, and she comes home. And though out in the world, people come and go, close or far, into her space, she can always return, alone, through that keyhole, to her true nature, and it sustains her. It’s sacred. So she must thank it.
The clouds have touched down, almost to the water, and the Sound is enshrouded in mist. The water’s a milky silver, except where the islands are reflected; there, it’s greenish silver, with a couple droppers full of black mixed in. We just left the Chenega Village dock, our arms loaded with gifts of the sea, the soil, the labor of friends. Chenega is primarily a Chugachmiut Native village of less than a hundred people. On the edge of the dock where we tied up, a man was cleaning a harbor seal he’d shot across the passage. Another man in raingear was filleting red salmon at a cleaning table. Seals and salmon are the subsistence mainstay of the village, just as they are for killer whales, and the village is now gathering, harvesting, putting up food. As we walked on the gravel road past small houses identical except for their varying pastel colors and the way each had been funked up by its inhabitants, we saw smoke drifting up from banyas (saunas) and smokehouses. Teenage girls in skinny jeans and hooded sweatshirts and I-Pods walked from one house to another, like teenage girls anywhere. Andy and Kate’s place was abloom with spring flowers, tulips, daffodils, but mostly wildflowers they’d dug up and hauled home from the mountains and meadows surrounding the village: clumps of purple flag iris, wild geranium, columbine, violet, monkshood. They’d planted flower and strawberry beds in terraces along a rock cliff, with a stone step path leading up to their greenhouse/hot tub spa they’d built from scavenged materials: odd bits of wood from the dump. Their six year-old boy Hawken met us at the door with his Power Rangers sword and wide brown eyes. “I know something you’ll be interested in,” he said, and took us by another greenhouse, then through the woods past his tree house and fort and his mother’s screened gazebo (also built of scavenged materials), into a meadow, to a platform Andy built from lumber he saved from a neighbor’s demolished house. In the center of the platform was a fire pit. “I helped collect all the firewood!” Hawken said. After touring the greenhouse, Andy picking two bunches of bok choy for us, Hawken excitedly pointing out the catnip plant, we followed Andy into the kitchen, where Kate had tea ready. A huge canner rattled on the stove. They were in the midst of smoking and canning red salmon. On the table was a open jar of salted salmon roe and saltine crackers. Out the window was their hummingbird feeder/trap, where they catch and band over 200 birds each spring. One of their birds turned up in Florida. Beyond the feeder, I watched Hawken entertaining himself on the trampoline, Moose, the big black lab mix begging him to throw a ball. Andy and Kate live almost entirely off the land. I’ve never met people who love nature and animals as much as they do, and who also hunt and fish and trap. They eat gull eggs, deer, black bear, ducks, fish, shrimp and seal. This spring, Hawken shot his first bear with a bow from a tree stand with his father. His shot killed the bear instantly. “Now the bear is going to be his spirit guide,” Kate said. “Bears have a power, you can feel it,” Andy said. I told them about my connection to “Hannuman,” how I’d visualized the Montague brown bears last summer. Andy, like many deer hunters, won’t hunt on Montague anymore; he’s been spooked too many times by its bears. But we agreed you can sense when it’s safe and when it’s not. “You can feel their energy,” Andy said, his brown eyes as wide as Hawken’s. When we left their house, they gave us a jar of freshly smoked red salmon.
We walked fast through the misting rain to the dock, where our friends on the salmon seine boat Agave had tied up behind us. My stepson Lars fished with Ken for three summers. Ken has fished more than thirty seasons, March through September each year. All winter he works on his boat. He described a family trip to Maui last winter. After two weeks on the beach he grew restless. He needed projects. It made me incredibly happy to see Ken again, to have a chance to thank him. He wrote me a letter last summer when I was going through treatment, and in it he expressed a shyness over a fisherman writing to an “English teacher.” But his card was a particular treasure to me, and I told him so, that I have it still, that it meant a great deal. “Aren’t you the one who sent all those packages, always with cards and notes, out to the boat those summers?” he asked me. That’s just love, that’s community, circling around, he seemed to say. That’s what we do, and it flows back to us, and through us, and away. There was a knock on Ken’s boat cabin door. Jake, his crewman opened it, and there was Andy, bearing yet another gift for us: a Hawaiian treat made of poi and pure honey.
My heart swells with the beauty of this Alaskan life. As we sat around the galley table talking story, a young woman, Megan, who runs her own seiner, walked up to the window to ask if anyone had a tea ball. Three weeks ago, she had her first baby, by a very difficult C-section, and she was still very sore. It was her first day back in the Sound fishing, and she’d strained herself “pulling things” and the baby, who was on the boat too (along with her husband and one extra crew person to help out), was hungrily consuming all of the calories she took in through her milk. How she was doing all of this was beyond our comprehension, but she’s like that. She’s been fishing since childhood, and skippering her own boat since her mid-twenties. A friend had given her some loose healing tea, but she had no strainer, so I ran over to the boat to get her one. When we left Ken’s boat, as he and his crew scrambled to prepare for another seine set, he gave us two enormous king salmon, one whole, and one he’d filleted for us. Together they weighed nearly fifty pounds. As we pulled away from the dock, I felt like I was riding an enormous wave of kindness, and I feel it still. To be welcomed back into the Sound, into life, this way is an extraordinarily powerful kind of healing. Tomorrow we leave the Sound. I’ve been doing a cleanse all this time on the boat to rid my body of any remaining traces of chemo and radiation, and as I head back to town, to the upcoming visit of my sister and her family in a few days, I feel renewed, and blessed beyond measure. I want to hold those four bottles of water I collected in the Sound to my heart, so some of the blessing and healing I feel is transferred into the water, and finds its way to Lauren.
I don’t know what the future holds, and time on earth for every one of us is all too short, even if we live to be 90. I have no way of knowing if any cancer cells lie dormant in my body. But tonight, in Foxfarm Bay, in this moment, a faint violet light tinting the clouds and water as the mist lifts halfway up the islands and catches in the trees, I know that I am completely, utterly healed.