Recently I had the opportunity to attend a cancer recovery retreat in the Lake Logan North Carolina area hosted by Casting Carolinas. Casting Carolinas is a non-profit organization that offers one-day and three-day retreats for women surviving all types of cancers. They use their own unique F.L.O.W. program that combines fly fishing instruction with medical education and mindfulness, teaching survivors skills to help them deal more effectively with the emotional effects of cancer and survivorship.
To say that I was extremely excited for the retreat is a gross understatement. I had originally been chosen to attend in October 2020, but due to unforeseen circumstances of a pandemic, the retreat had to be cancelled indefinitely. Sigh. I would remain on the waiting list to be contacted when things opened back up. When the email came through in June stating they were opening up registration again for an October 2021 retreat, I was so thrilled that I set an alarm to remind myself to sign up first thing! The anticipation over the next few months stirred in my soul as I felt this time away was going to bring many blessings. I am a nurturer at heart and I spend the majority of my time, at work and at home, taking care of others. This 3-day weekend, however, was going to be a time of focusing on me and for once in my life I didn’t feel selfish about that.
The day had finally arrived, the weather forecast for the weekend looked fabulous, I was packed and headed out. I had my windows down, some praise music on, the leaves were already wearing autumn attire and the two hour drive quickly passed. I caught myself smiling from ear to ear as I drove up the gravel road to the retreat center, pulled into a space, took a deep breath, and stepped out of the car to spend 3 days with complete strangers whom I shared a common bond with – survivorship. All of our lives had been uprooted by a cancer diagnosis, some more than once, yet we were all here, ready to embrace what was in store for us.
Laughter and peace permeated the atmosphere as I stepped up on the porch of the cabin. I was greeted by several volunteers that made me feel welcomed immediately and directed me inside to the registration table. All the ladies that hosted and served at the retreat were so full of life, joy and friendliness and made you feel at home immediately. Once I checked in I was to come back outside and be fitted for my river waders and boots for the fishing trip on Sunday! Wait. A River. Moving water. Insert anxiety. Was I ready for this part?
My mind wandered back many years, to a moment in time that had forever seared itself into my brain. I was 6 or 7, at the lake with my family and my father was trying to teach me to swim. He stood at a distance, chest deep in water, swearing to me that it wasn’t over my head, and promising that if I started to go under, he would save me. Little did I know he was standing on a stump that lifted him up a good 3 feet. I attempted to swim, face down in the water, arms stroking back and forth. I was making some progress but suddenly, I began to sink. The water overtook me, I was thrashing left and right, eyes wide open, surrounded by the murky water and bubbles created by the oxygen that was leaving my lungs. My feet desperately searched for the bottom and it was nowhere to be found. I screamed but no sound came out, only gulps of water rushing into my mouth. Where was my father? I needed him to save me! Whether this lasted 5 seconds or 5000 years, for me it felt like an eternity and I just knew at that moment I was drowning. Finally, a hand reached down and pulled me out of what I thought was a near death experience, and as soon as my feet could touch ground, I ran out of the water, coughing, spewing out water, and terrified. I sat there on the shore crying, wanting a hug or reassurance that I was okay, yet what I got was belittling laughter. I was a worthless crybaby, a chicken, a coward, a sissy. My dad demanded that I get back in the water but all I wanted was to run away in fear and I didn’t care what kind of punishment I would get for refusing his demands. A whipping would be better than dying, right?
From that moment water became my enemy and at the age of 51, I still cannot swim. I can climb a 500-foot mountain, stand on death defying cliff edges, leap a tall building in a single bound – okay maybe not that extreme – but I can handle getting my feet wet in stream crossings. However, if the adventure involves any part of my body above my knees being immersed in water, you can guarantee that anxiety rushes in. There I stood on the front porch of the cabin, getting fit for boots and river waders and in two days, I would be standing in a mighty rushing river holding a fly-fishing rod. Oh Lord, what had I gotten myself in to?
The next couple of days were amazing! The heart of the retreat is a mindfulness program developed by the hosts of Casting Carolinas, called F.L.O.W. It focuses on taking a deep breath, calming your spirit and being aware of what is going on with your thoughts, emotions and reactions. We had several group sessions where we all came together and spent time connecting with ourselves and each other, learning, and growing. We shared lots of laughter, life experiences, and shed heartfelt tears. I felt incredibly honored to be in the midst of so many strong and powerful women. We also spent time learning about fly fishing! We learned about the river and the different aspects of it. What kind of insects the fish eat. How to put a fly-fishing rod and reel together, tie on the flies, and how to cast. We even got to make our own flies! Saturday evening, we were entertained with a time of live music, dancing and singing, oh and not to mention that we ate so much delicious food I thought I would bust. My heart was overflowing with joy and gratefulness as I laid my head down on the pillow Saturday night, closing my eyes in anticipation of Sunday morning’s river adventure. All that we had learned about fly fishing would be put into action as each woman would have their own guide and get to spend almost four hours on the river fishing.
The sun rose quickly the next morning, and decked out in our boots and waders, we all gathered at the cabin for a closing ceremony. Whew, what an emotional hour! 🙂 We then made our way to the dining hall for breakfast and to meet our guides. My guide for the day would be Rick, an experienced fisherman who cut his teeth fishing in the Gunnison Valley of Colorado. We enjoyed small talk over bacon and eggs, got group pictures and then headed out to the Pigeon River to hopefully catch some fish! As we made our way down to the river and stepped in, I was entranced by the melody of the moving water. Rick took some time to educate me on a few things, observe my newly learned casting skills, find a nice spot to steady ourselves and then it was time to fish. I admit it was awkward at first feeling the difference between fishing with a spin cast and spinning reel versus the fly rod. I was used to having weights on my line and the fly-fishing line seemed weightless. After a bit of practice, I got the hang of it and I was casting, getting bites, losing fish, and yes, I finally caught some.
My catches included a brook trout, a rainbow trout and a brown trout, which earned me the badge of what fishermen call a “grand slam,” catching one of each type of trout. Go Christy! It was so fun being played by the fish. The water was crystal clear, you could see them just hanging out underwater and watching as my fly would float downstream right in front of them. Then those little buggers would jump right out of the water in front of you just to show you who was the real boss! As we were walking upstream to fish in another spot, I noticed a brook trout hanging out in a little pocket of water to the left of the river. I said to my guide, “hey, there’s a fish right here!” He said, “see if you can catch it?” I said, “with my bare hands?” Yes! So, I took a deep breath, raised my hands in the air and breathed out, “I am one with the river.” I was being silly, but hey it worked! I knelt down, slowly put my hands in the water and very gently eased them under the belly of the fish and bingo! I raised him right up out of the water! My guide let out a huge belly laugh and I was proud to be his first student to catch a trout with their bare hands!
As fun as it was catching the fish, my favorite part of the day was reading the river. I loved observing how the different sections flowed at different speeds. I learned what lanes were and began to identify riffles, eddies and pockets. I discovered that you begin fishing the river in front of you and slowly progress across the stream so that you don’t spook the fish. At one point I even told my guide that he was more than welcome to fish while I just stood in the river being mesmerized. For the professional record…he did not fish! :). At one point I was standing in moving water that was almost chest deep and I could feel the weight of the current against me. Wait, I was standing in water ALMOST CHEST DEEP! I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and realized that for the first time in my life I was surrounded by water and my mind was not consumed with anxiety. In fact, all morning I had not given one thought to anything other than the delight I was feeling as the river had wooed me like a new suitor and captured my undivided attention.
Twelve thirty rolled around quickly and it was time to head back to the dining hall for lunch, our graduation ceremony, to tell our fishing stories, say our heartfelt goodbyes and head back home. Some folks had caught tons of fish, others a few, one had caught waders full of water as she took a tumble, and me, yep I told the story of how I caught that brook trout with my bare hands! The weekend had written so many great stories yet I knew that the greatest story of all was that, on this wonderful Sunday morning in October, I was no longer a terrified little girl, a crybaby, worthless and a coward. I was also a strong, powerful woman, and in those few passing hours I had made a new friend and the river and I had truly become one.