One crisp winter day, my friend Kate and I went walking on nearby farm land. The two of us had taken this walk many times over the years; that day, we had eight dogs with us. The four dogs in my charge were all “grand-dogs,” as were three of the four accompanying Kate.
After about an hour in the brisk, 20-degree air, we headed back to our cars. As we neared one of the farm’s three ice-covered ponds, Kate noticed that Philip, a Shih Tzu mix, was missing. Running ahead, she called his name. Then we saw him—he was walking on the frozen pond. Just as Kate called to him, the unthinkable happened: The ice broke and he fell in. She let out a shriek, and both of us ran. My Dachshund, Cindy Lou, wearing her warm red-plaid coat, dashed ahead of me onto the ice to save Philip. Instead of saving him, she joined him in the frigid water when the ice broke underneath her.
Circling the pond to get closer to where the dogs were trapped, Kate called them by name, urging them to paddle to shore. But there was no shore—there was only ice. Unnoticed by either of us, Kate’s other dog, Willy, a Terrier mix, had followed her and now he was on the thin ice as well. Little Willy, all seven pounds of him, fell in.
Frantic, I found my cell phone and dialed 911. The operator was very calm: “You have a dog drowning in a pond, ma’m?” she said.
“No, I have three dogs drowning in a pond.”
“Where are you located?”
I knew the road I was on and the name of the farm, but not the exact address. It would have helped if I had. We were in the middle of 200 acres; there were three dogs drowning and three ponds on the property, but between my hysterical state and the 911 operator’s confusion, I wasn’t even able to tell her which pond it was, let alone the address.
Kate tore off her boots and socks and called out to me that she was going in. I told her no, that help was on the way. I told her emphatically that she would drown. But she ignored me. As I watched, my best friend walked onto the ice.
Just then, I noticed an old blue canoe hidden nearby in the brush. Calling to Kate, I asked her to come back and help me get the canoe. As she came toward me, I assured her again that the fire department would be there soon—I had also called Kate’s husband, who knew exactly where we were, and told him to come quick. I tried hard to not look at Cindy Lou or Philip or Willy as they continued to struggle to keep afloat. I knew I had to concentrate on the rescue.
I pushed the canoe onto the ice and Kate leapt in, barefoot and gloveless. This broke the fragile surface, and she and the canoe were in the water. I gave her a stick to paddle with.
It was a pathetic excuse for a paddle but I was desperate. Then the canoe got stuck in the ice, and the rotten stick broke. Though she kept trying to paddle, she couldn’t get anywhere. “I can’t see Philip,” she wailed. “He’s gone. Philip’s gone!”
I couldn’t look. I couldn’t look and see a blank space where Philip had been, or wet Willy or my poor Cindy Lou with her heavy coat, struggling to keep their heads above the icy water. I couldn’t look at anything but the dark water in front of me.
So I did the only thing I could think to do: I took off my coat and sweater and went in. Rosie, my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, followed me, then immediately turned and swam back. From the shoreline, the other three dogs barked relentlessly. As I reached the canoe, which was only five feet from the pond’s edge, I realized that the water was too deep for me to stand up, so I grabbed the ragged back of the canoe and kicked. It didn’t budge.
I became weak very fast. My breathing was deep and strained, my heart raced, and my arms and legs felt like lead. It felt as though I were having a heart attack. I told Kate I had to go back. As I slowly got myself back to the land, I felt like a complete failure. Once I was out of the water, it took me a while to catch my breath.
Finally, realizing that Kate was going nowhere, the two of us clumsily pulled the rusty canoe out of the water and relaunched it in another section of the pond. I gave her a tree limb and as big a push as I could manage.
In a burst of anger, she broke the ice in front of her and made it through to the center of the pond, where she found Philip still paddling for his life! Grabbing him by the scruff of his neck, she threw him into the boat, then did the same for Cindy Lou and Willy.
Wrapping them in her coat, she made her way back to me and the other dogs.
We put the shivering bunch close together. While I ran for the car, Kate lay on top of them to warm them up with her body heat. Then help arrived: Kate’s husband and son, the EMT and the fire department. We declined treatment and rushed the dogs to the veterinary hospital, where they were treated immediately. It was only afterward, at the vet’s office, that we realized Kate had cuts all over her hands and arms from the ice and the sides of the old canoe. She had also ripped a fishing hook out of her arm, a gash that required stitches to close—that first stick, it turns out, had been a makeshift fishing pole.
Philip and Cindy Lou were set up with warm IV drips and released later that night, but seven-pound Willy, whose body temperature registered below the minimum temperature of 85 degrees, had to stay. They pumped more heated fluids and antibiotics into him, and he went home the next day, alive and happy—and lucky.
Later, I learned from the EMT that when a person goes into ice-cold water, the body shifts into survival mode, closing down circulation to the arms and legs in order to keep the core warm and the heart pumping. This is why so many people drown when they break through the ice—arms and legs are the first parts of the body that stop working, and it can happen within two to five minutes. I didn’t know this, and neither did Kate.
What I do know now is that old blue canoe, which I had seen so many times before as we walked past that pond, saved all of our lives.