I knew I was in a bad spot as soon as the ice broke below me and I plunged into the icy Assiniboine River.
There was 20 feet of ice between me and the shore. I had broken through into the area where the river hadn’t frozen yet. It was maybe 100 feet long by 15 feet wide.
My dog was also swimming in the hole and I had no idea how long he had been trapped.
Some of my dog owner friends ran to the cries of the woman who had spotted Luke in the river and then watched me go in.
“I think I’m in trouble,” I said to her.
• • •
A group of dogs and their owners had been meeting at 2 p.m. every day since 2005 at the dog park on the Assiniboine River in the city’s north end.
Some days it might be a handful of us; other days might see more than 20 dogs running around as we walked on a dirt path along the river. The dogs ranged in size from mini dachshunds to great Danes. With squirrels chattering at them from the trees on both sides of the path — and the off-leash freedom to play — the hounds kept busy.
The unquestioned alpha male of the pack was my white shepherd. If he was challenged, he and the other dog would rear up on their back legs and have their little tussle. Nobody was ever hurt but something was always decided between the two.
Part of my dog’s alpha character was an aloofness. He would run up to meet the other dogs, but having accomplished that, he would then retreat back into the bush to do his own thing.
He seemed to enjoy when other dogs joined his hunt but as long as it was on his terms.
So it was not uncommon for him to disappear for a while. He was famous in our little crowd for swimming across the Assiniboine in the summer to inspect the deer beds on the other side and then swimming back. In the winter he would walk across the ice and come back after his chores were complete.
• • •
On this day, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008, he had been gone for a while. The dozen or so other owners fanned out looking for him.
Finally one spotted him, swimming in the river. After she shouted, I ran down to the river, throwing off my bulky parka and grabbing two thick branches.
With one under each arm, I scooted out towards him on my belly. He quickly swam to me, whining and shivering.
I grabbed his collar and as I started to pull him up, the ice broke beneath my chest and I was in the chilly river too. With a log below each arm I wasn’t in immediate danger, but I was clearly in a bad spot.
I immediately started hammering at the ice with one arm, hoping that if I could break enough of the thin ice I could haul myself up onto thicker ice.
It was working but I had two problems.
First, it was gashing up my hand. Second, the current of the river was strong enough that I couldn’t stay in one place. It was pushing me downriver, toward the spot where the hole in the ice ended.
Within minutes, the other owners were along the shore, looking for solutions. They had called 911, and while the animal control guy was quickly on scene, emergency responders would play no role in what was to follow.
• • •
It’s hard to describe what goes through your mind when your life is in danger. It felt like time had slowed down.
I continued to try and hammer at the ice with my arm but it wasn’t working. I watched the other owners on the shore searching for solutions.
The water was freezing. I kept my legs busy treading water, just like I had done so many times before in cold water at triathlons.
I watched my dog. I thought a lot about my wife. I worried about what would happen when the current pushed me to the spot where the open water ended.
• • •
On the shore, the owners had come up with the idea that ultimately saved my life. They attached several leashes together, tying a stick to one of the ends.
The first toss became tangled up in one of the dogs on shore and only went a couple of feet.
The second throw was a miracle. It skidded right in front of me as if it had been gently set there by somebody.
I grabbed on, nervously leaving the two logs that had kept me afloat.
When they first started pulling, I was breaking the ice with my chest because it wasn’t strong enough. I can still remember the feeling as my body started to lift out of the water and skid along the ice. During that 20-foot trip on my belly, I remember marvelling at the fact that I was going to survive.
The ice that I had broken with my chest helped save my dog’s life too. He swam into the channel behind me as I was being pulled out. As soon as I was safe, my buddy stripped off his parka, slid out on his stomach and pulled him to safety.
The bearhug that I gave to my friend Kevin when he got back to shore could only convey a little of my relief and gratitude.
• • •
My dog ended up with dehydration, shock and hypothermia. After a couple of hours at the vet’s clinic, he came home and uncharacteristically slept under a blanket for the night.
I was cut up and cold but took a long bath and worked a half shift that night. After a few days of describing the ordeal to people, I shut down on the topic.
It wasn’t my own mortality that troubled me — although that led to some soul searching — it was the sound of my dog whimpering in the water beside me that haunted me.
Four years later it still does.