Retreat and Heal
● By Wendy Sipple
Envision serene beauty near ritual temples Mt. Shasta and Burney Falls. Imagine, too, being presented a weekend retreat at a historic lodge near rushing rivers and world-class fly-fishing, including river guides…at no cost other than a little gas money. Just fill out an application.
If the stars align, you could be one of 14 lucky women chosen to enjoy this tranquil haven. There’s just one catch: you must be a breast cancer survivor. An elite club, survivors are treated to this life-altering experience.
Casting for Recovery (CFR), a non-profit organization, along with a cadre of compassionate sponsors, is the benefactor of this generous offering. Headquartered in Vermont, Casting for Recovery provided 47 retreats in 33 states in 2011. Their Santa Rosa office facilitates two retreats in northern California. This past August, 14 remarkable and beautiful women – different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds – gathered at Clearwater Lodge at the Pit River to share stories of despair, hope and survival. The weekend focuses on the physical and emotional therapy of fly-fishing; a meditative art.
One by one, women arrive on a Friday afternoon. Greeted by CFR staff, we’re told they are there to serve us. A foreign concept: being served instead of serving. As we wait to check in, there’s an exchange of pleasantries. Soon, we’re chatting like old acquaintances. We settle in, then gather to be fully garbed in the finest Orvis waders, fly-fishing vests and boots. Before long, everyone is laughing and looking like fly-fishing professionals.
Jars of homemade cookies and gourmet cuisine by Chef Noel Wright (celebrating her 17th season at the Lodge) are high points. Over the weekend, we gorge on mahi-mahi, grilled asparagus, strawberry scones, whole-wheat pancakes, fresh fruit, cheesecake with blueberries, and more cookies. The dining room is a cacophony of voices at meals, everyone talking at once as if we’ve been together for years.
In 48 hours, a fly-fishing course, free time, meals and discussions are adeptly orchestrated into our stay. Guided by accomplished female fly-fisher staff, we learn the basics of casting, knot tying, lures and more casting. They are patient and giving, providing positive reinforcement and many hugs.
During two confabs we share stories as varied as our ages and circumstances. What kind of breast cancer? When? Surgeries. Drugs. Treatments. How many years? Family issues. Relapse. The most poignant, powerful moments spent as friends and survivors. There is laughter, tears; nodding, shaking of heads; breathlessly listening to tales of strength and optimism. We hear over and over, not just the fears, but the blessings, too. The common thread, the double-surgeon’s knot that binds us together – we are all survivors.
On Sunday, we are joined by volunteer “River Helpers” who, one-on-one, will guide us to fly-fish. We climb into our fishing regalia and head to Hat Creek. The energy is palpable. Each twosome must establish a relationship of trust and communication. The “Helpers” support us as we navigate the rushing waters and they provide guidance on fly-fishing techniques. Secretly, we all hope to catch something. For those few hours, cancer is left behind; we are all fly-fishers together. It hurts to leave the river.
A graduation ceremony includes more hugs, more tears. The retreat is ending, dispersing us to our various lives, with words of gratitude for gifts we cannot even begin to describe. Departing is hard.
But you don’t have to be a breast cancer survivor to enjoy the wilds of northern California and fly-fishing. To quote Sally Stoner, an extraordinary teacher and fly-fisher: “A lot of it is just being there. You being part of it, and feeling it. Don’t rush.” •