I headed out for playtime with the four adult dogs, same as ever. Hawkitt loves to fetch and tug, Bindi loves to harass Hawk, Peeka loves to watch and I’m still not sure what Brody loves to do. Willa must wait her turn indoors. Such is the life of a puppy.
It was raining lightly, the first real rain since it started warming up – rain making the ice and snow on the driveway slick before disappearing. I was warm enough with my heavy wool coat on. It had been my father-in-law’s – a firefighter’s winter jacket for wearing around town. It was fire engine red with the white emblem on the back and his name – Hans – embroidered on the front.
I think it was the third throw. The ball took a wicked bounce off a tree root and landed on the remains of the late March ice on the lower pond. The pond is deep and the ice, unstable and melting, is still thick in places, even after several 60 degree days.
What happened next took on that slow motion, surreal quality that has become such a cliché when trying to describe a life and death situation. Hawk set off after the ball. I really thought Hawk wouldn’t set foot on that ice. He is a sensible dog, often more sensible than me. When I saw him out there in the middle of the pond running across the ice, I yelled “no.”
It was too late. He was already breaking through. The ice was about 2 inches thick, maybe 3. He was in a circle of water but couldn’t get purchase and couldn’t break up the remaining ice. I ran to the pond’s edge and shouted encouragement. No good. He was panicked, and thrashing, and then every few thrashes… bobbing underwater. His whole head disappeared twice. I saw the look on his face.
I ran around the pond to the side where the ice was thinnest and implored him. “Come on, buddy, THIS way.” Nope. He was too far gone. He couldn’t take in information and use it. He just kept trying to climb out onto the ice, but he couldn’t pull himself up and the ice wasn’t breaking up to allow him to swim to shore.
I was going to watch him die. I had that thought clear as a bell. If I fail to act, I will watch him die.
So I told Peeka and Bindi to stay (they had joined me at the water’s edge), and I crawled out onto the ice. I was amazed it held me as long as it did. I reached Hawkitt, and shifted my weight to grab his outstretched paw. I saw the ice crack under me. I had one thought. Just one. “I’m going in.”
I hate swimming, by the way. I never actually choose to swim, when given the choice. I dislike being in water. It always makes me vaguely nauseous. But I am a strong, competent swimmer. I have lifeguard training and scuba certification. I can swim just fine. I just hate it.
I was in the water, up to my armpits. I couldn’t stand, but I didn’t sink in any deeper. I beat the ice with my arms and kicked my way back to shore, a human ice breaker so that Hawk could swim behind me. He did. We both got out, dripping and stunned. For once, I didn’t laugh out loud at my folly.
I stripped on the front step, my wool coat now sodden and impressively heavy. I had to pry my Muck boots off, and pour what looked like a quart of water out of each of them. I left both outside in the rain. The rest of my clothes got dumped in the washing machine and I toweled Hawkitt off vigorously. He kept shaking. I kept telling him what a good boy he was. Then I got in the shower and realized I couldn’t feel any of the fingers on my left hand at all. Washing the pond water out of my hair was an adventure.
I got dressed in too warm clothes for the day, and poured myself a beer. A double IPA. Then I talked to Tom on the phone. He said “thank you for saving our boy. And thank you for not dying.”
When I was a little girl, I often ice skated on a pond in the woods. All the neighborhood kids did. And all our parents read us the riot act about thin ice, and threatened and begged us to be careful. To my knowledge none of us ever fell through. I carried a belief, though, that falling through would mean instant death. Our parents, God love them, failed to empower us to handle the “what if I do” scenario. It was pretty normal 1970s parenting: just don’t. That’s an order. I assumed if I fell through I’d instantly freeze, sink, and drown/die of hypothermia. My understanding of icy water wasn’t very sophisticated.
After a few sips of beer, I texted my best friend, a forest ranger with extensive training in rescues of all sorts. I asked her what I should have done; what’s the correct set of steps to such a rescue? She said encouragement and support for a self rescue is the first step. If you don’t panic, you can often pull yourself out or do what I did and swim to shore – depending of course upon all the variables – distance, fitness, mindset, etc. As unpleasant as going for a swim in March in 40 degree rain may be, it’s not instant death.
And Hawkitt? No tool, no gear, no training could have prevented this from happening. Had Hawk been wearing an ecollar, I wouldn’t have had time to even grab the controller, much less push any buttons. I yelled, but I’m not sure that my NO didn’t make matters worse. Perhaps Hawk hesitated when I hollered and that moment of reduced forward motion was what made him fall through. Maybe, maybe not.
No tool, no training, no gear, no method, no planning… nothing short of bubble wrapping Hawk and staying indoors could prevent these sorts of accidents. I know some folks do just that – live their lives attempting to identify and then mitigate against or prevent every bad thing that crosses their awareness from happening. I honor that as one (respectable) way to approach life with dogs.
I train. I use tools. I seek sensible and sane solutions to every challenge and safety issue I identify. I am not cavalier, throwing caution to the wind at every opportunity. The puppy wears a long line despite demonstrating a reliable recall. Why? Because she is a puppy. Puppies can be impulsive. And the tool keeps her safe while increasing her freedom. Win win. But I understand that no tool is a panacea. And that every tool can be involved in a horrible outcome. I remember a dog in my neighborhood growing up that was killed because he was on a leash – he bolted off a deck while tethered and was hung. Any tool can become lethal. Any situation can go horribly, catastrophically sideways. Bad things happen to good dogs and good owners.
I wouldn’t want it any other way. The searing beauty of life is that it is indeed fragile. Shit happens. I don’t want to live fearful and bubble wrapped, avoiding experiences and fetishizing safety. Life is a fucking mess, and I want to celebrate that mess. Not in an irresponsible, “fuck it, let’s just throw up our hands and do whatever” kind of way, but in a reverent “lay it at the feet of God” way. In every decision, every choice, every situation, I weigh the options as best I can. Down at the banks of the pond, I had only a couple of minutes, by the looks of Hawkitt’s face and the frequency with which he was bobbing under the water. I had to decide fast. I took the risk that I too would land in the drink if I tried to save him. But I was pretty sure he was worth it. And pretty sure I’d survive the effort, even if I did end up going for a swim.
Today the ice on the lower pond is completely melted. And I’m looking at Hawkitt a little bit differently than I did yesterday.