The main reason I have decided to write this story is because I feel it will help get it off my mind. It has haunted me in a way, invading my thoughts before going to sleep and causing a deep sense of uneasiness. For one who possesses a relatively healthy frame of mind on a somewhat consistent basis, the presence of recurring images of horror and desperation stands out far too boldly. Perhaps by relating the incidents in the most realistic way possible, I will relieve myself of their onerous existence.
It was a clear day and the sun was setting behind the imposing shapes of the Cascade Mountains which border central Oregon on its west side. At this time I usually like to go for a run with the dog and get in a good hard set of exercise before showering and sitting down to one of those great home-cooked meals. But “clear” in central Oregon does not presuppose a warm temperature, especially in the middle of December when it has already snowed and experienced a good deal of subfreezing weather. On this particular occasion all the snow had melted and the air was very dry but there was a definite bite in the air – cold enough to maintain a thick crust of ice on the ponds near the house. Ice. That word now holds a special meaning for me. Never before did I think it would have such a large bearing upon my experience.
The dog’s name is MacGregor and he and I would often play and romp while the sun went down. I would throw tennis balls for him or anything else I could get my hands on. He is a pure bred golden retriever and without a doubt one of the most wonderful dogs I have ever known, and I have known a lot of them. He is the type of dog that will do anything with you, go anywhere, and always be ready to play. He is the unusual combination of being tough and strong yet his demeanor so gentle, sweet and loving.
I invent all sorts of games with him as we go on our evening romps and this particular evening it was hide and seek. Adjacent to the ponds which lie about 500 yards from our house, there is a winding bike trail which continues all around the property. The day before, Mac and I had gone the whole length of the trail, me on the bike, and he dashing alongside, occasionally rolling in the tall grass but always catching up and staying with me. But this day I was on foot and running all around this bike trail with him chasing me. A road goes over the bike trail at one point near the ponds, and a tunnel was constructed so that whether on foot or on a bike, one can proceed through the tunnel beneath the road. I would throw a stick or something similar for Mac and while he is streaking to fetch it, I would dash to the front of the tunnel. Just as he turns around to see me and brings the object to me as fast as possible, I would run through the tunnel and hide on the other side. When he comes rushing through the tunnel to find me I would have already climbed up over the road and be back to the front and dashing the opposite direction while he would be hauling around the back of the tunnel still trying to find me. He is so unbelievably fast and also so quick to learn the tricks of the game, that it is quite rare for me to escape very far before he is beside me again.
On this afternoon which I have begun to describe, we were involved in that very game and I had managed to get him wandering in great circles on the back side of the tunnel while I was dashing along the bike trail towards the house. He took a longer time than ordinary to figure out that I was already running back and by the time he popped out of the front of the tunnel I was well around the pond. There were two ways he could have caught up with me: either by sprinting along the bike trail which circumvented the pond or else by making his way in a straight line directly across the intervening ice-covered pond. Before relating his decision, I should briefly describe the nature of this pond area for it factors in greatly to the details of the story. It is a large area designed for a wild bird preserve and all sorts of tractors have been involved in moving great masses of dirt around its edges to form the optimum shape. The designers wanted islands and irregular land masses to appear among the bodies of water to give it the maximum aesthetic effect. But they had not finished their project at this time and the state of the area was quite a mess. If the weather had been warmer it would be one huge muddy mass with great walls of dirt surrounding the water and no one would dare encroach upon the water for fear of either sinking in the mud or else sliding in the water itself. But at this time of year, it was cold enough to not only create a thick crust of ice along the surface of the water but also to harden all of the dirt areas into huge irregular masses of dark brown. It was definitely not an area where one should play, at least not for another six months or so until they groom the area to a reasonable smoothness.
Mac didn’t give a damn about the mud or the water or the ice but had one concern in his mind – to catch up with me on the other side of the pond and thereby conclude our wild game. Without hesitation he decided to take the short route and ran out upon a muddy promontory which led to the icy surface of the pond. His decision was by far the quicker method for there was a large bay which he would have had to run around if he stayed on land and that would take far too long by his standards. By this time I was stopped on the other side of the pond and watching his every move as he began to step along the ice. There was something about his movement along the ice that fascinated me. It was like courting disaster for if it were me on that ice it would have cracked on the instant. But for Mac it was a very practical medium for his immediate purpose. He was no dummy about ice, however, and would not have ventured upon it if he did not think it was safe. That is not to say he didn’t take risks; many a time he would be chasing a stick or something along a frozen area and the ice would cave in but he was a born swimmer and he would crack his way back to land. His coat was a double variety and I would always be amazed at how the extreme cold temperature of the water didn’t affect him. He loved it.
I stood there standing in my nice warm sweat clothes watching him scurry across this hundred yard stretch of ice and felt a sting of worry run across me. This was a far larger body of ice-covered water than I had seen him attempt before. Usually it was small narrow streams of ice which he courted and if he happened to fall in I would always be close enough on land to nab him should he not be able to paw or bite his way through the ice to safety. The size of this pond scared me. I was momentarily reassured by his confidence in crossing it because he was moving across it more quickly than his good judgment normally allowed. Then his rapid forward movement suddenly came to a halt about fifteen feet from the muddy cliffed edge of the pond. His sudden stop compelled me to run to the top of the cliff and I felt bewildered by his action. He stood absolutely still and I knew he felt something was wrong. I knew how badly he wanted to make it to where I stood yet he stopped stone still. His face was toward me and his expressive eyes seemed to show great concern. Then I heard the horrible, grating, cracking sound of the ice beneath him and his head swirled around as he watched the water gradually seep around his paws. With one final staccato of snapping ice, he plunged straight down until only his head and flailing paws could be seen.
Now this very scene has happened in the course of our playing probably a dozen times, but for some reason I felt this was different. The ice was too thick. There was no way for him to crack the ice surrounding him with his paws or his teeth and break through to shore. I stood above the six foot cliff which overlooked the round hole of water where he was trapped. He would place his powerful two front paws on the ice edge before him like so many times before, but it would not give. He would try the same action all around the hole but none of the edges would even crack. He had fallen into some kind of freak spot in the ice and he soon recognized his dangerous dilemma and started to let out long high whimpers. His next course was to try to place those paws on the edge and pull himself up but the anatomy of a dog is such that it is a virtually impossible trick.
All kinds of thoughts were racing through my head. I remembered the story of a dog drowning due to the exact same situation. I thought of all the times I had seen Mac on top of ice and wondering what I would do if he should helplessly fall in and only be able to survive through my assistance. I thought of tugging him with a long branch which he would clamp onto with his teeth but there were only bare hills of dirt around the pond. His desperate paddling and whimpering drove me crazy and, as he was watching me, I could feel him pleading for help. I had to crack the ice in such a way to enable him to swim out. The hills of dirt were encrusted with large irregular pieces of lava rock which I fished out with my hands. The first one I heaved down and it made a hole but not a long crack which Mac could break through. The next one I threw closer to him but it didn’t penetrate and bounced to the edge of his icy hole. I couldn’t believe how hard the ice was and I desperately scratched the dirt for another rock to split the ice. I was shocked to discover after turning around that Mac had grabbed the huge lava rock in his mouth. He must have thought we were still playing games – his pure retriever breeding coming to the fore, he had this huge rock in his mouth, far too heavy to carry and the extra weight lowered his golden body further towards a very icy death. I screamed at him to drop it but that was probably the last thing in his mind. Only his most basic instincts were controlling him now. He knew only to retrieve and would die in his attempt to do so.
The desperation of it all made me wild. I threw mud at him hoping it would make him drop the rock and float longer in his attempt to fight the ice. I screamed over and over but to no avail. Finally, he began really sinking and flailing at the water with his paws, only his mouth and eyes and the rock above water. I couldn’t believe all of this happening right near our warm cozy house in an area which is usually reserved for casual walks and gazing upon the sky and country in peaceful reflection. At that moment all was wild and horrible. I knew I had to go in after him. So many times I had thought about this but it was really happening now. There was no time for deliberation or wise plans of rescue – he was sinking. On an instant I remembered the horrible report that humans could not enter water of such a terribly cold temperature for it would cause the heart to stop. Here I was in the physical prime of life, an excellent swimmer, yet confronted with a seemingly invincible aquatic situation. Thoughts of people falling off of canoes in an icy stream and rendered utterly helpless would enter my mind. I envisioned Mac and I disappearing beneath the ice never to be found until the next spring when the ice would finally melt. So horrible and only 500 yards to our warm home and family. I was in a frenzy but all of a sudden everything became so clear. It was Mac himself that made me come to my senses. He was far more than just a dog sinking in the ice. He represented so much of true life with all his vivacity and love of play. He had a character which far surpassed most people and stood for all the qualities which make life worth living. To me, he was life itself and never more so than at that moment. I felt myself going down with him and I couldn’t let it happen. All thought stopped and I moved into action. I slid down the muddy surface of the cliff and landed on the edge of the pond, breaking its edge with a loud shotgun crack. The ice was a lot thicker than I had imagined. Stepping deeper and deeper into the freezing water, I broke the surface with my hands and made my way slowly to Mac’s hellish place. Cursing, I tore the lava rock out of his mouth and he rose up high enough in the water for me to grab his collar and heave him up over the hole’s edge on his way to the shore. At that moment I felt something weak inside me. I was up to my shoulders in the water which had hundreds of pieces of ice floating on it and I could feel my heart miss. There was nothing painful but just a feeling of extreme and desperate vulnerability. I was able to back my way out of the water and scratched up the surface of the muddy cliff. I only wanted to get back to a hot shower and ran on the bike trail home with Mac running and prancing about me.