EDMONTON – Adam Shaw was taking an Easter stroll with his wife, two young children and the family dog when they heard the screams.
It sounded at first as if kids were cavorting in the spring sunshine in a northeast Edmonton park.
But Shaw and his wife, Kelsey, quickly realized that two girls had been playing on ice near a footbridge and had fallen into the bone-chilling water of the wide North Saskatchewan River.
“We looked down to see one young girl floating in the river and her sister trying to pull her out,” he recalled Monday at a firehall news conference. “We tried to yell to them to hang onto the ice and stay where they were if they could.”
After asking his wife to dial 911, Shaw called his eight-year-old lab-husky-cross Rocky to his side and together they scrambled down the steep bank through tangles of bushes and onto the river ice.
By now the second girl, 9, had fallen in.
Shaw managed to pull her six-year-old sister out reasonably quickly.
“The ice was still fairly solid where she was and I was able to pull her out. I told her to head back to shore and stay there and wait for help.”
But even in those few moments, the situation grew more dire.
“The second girl had floated quite a ways down the river. She was bobbing in and out. We could barely see her, so we started running down the ice, trying to get close to her.”
He yelled out to her so she knew he was there. He asked her if she could swim closer to the ice. But she said she was really cold and couldn’t move her arms or legs.
That’s when things got even worse. Shaw was trying to throw Rocky’s leash to the girl when he fell in and Rocky fell in with him. That’s when Shaw “got scared for myself.”
“It was breath-taking. It was very cold.”
But the adrenalin was pumping and he just kept going.
Man and dog tried to pull themselves back to shore, but the thinning ice kept collapsing beneath them.
“It kept breaking, kept breaking.”
Rocky finally managed to get his front paws on the ice.
“I pushed his back end up so he was on the ice, then used the leash and him to pull myself up on the ice.”
Shaw realized he needed to try a different approach if he wasn’t going to become a victim.
“I just really didn’t want to fail,” Shaw said.
By this time, he couldn’t see the second girl. He said it seemed as if his eyes searched for her a long time along the expanse of open water.
“I started to look around and I couldn’t see her. She had gone underneath the water and I thought she was gone. She popped up … down the river and she was still screaming and I started to run after her again.”
Shaw and his dog got as close as they could.
“I put the leash around Rocky and pushed him to get in the water. I told her I was going to get him to jump in and if she could grab a hold of his leash, we could get her back to the ice.”
Rocky, a burly canine with a greying muzzle, jumped in right beside the girl and she managed to cling to his leash.
“I called him back and he swam towards the ice.”
Again the ice crumbled as Rocky swam closer with the girl in tow. But Shaw managed to grab the dog and the girl’s arm and pull them both to safety. The girl was hypothermic.
He tried carrying her back up the bank, but it was too steep, so they sat down at the edge of the river. Amazingly, despite getting cold and wet, his cellphone rang. It was the emergency rescue team telling him to stay put.
Later, after the girls had been taken to hospital where they were examined and declared fine, Shaw called his mom. He told her he was famished from the exertion and she said she would bring him a burger — and one for Rocky, too.
Shaw said he isn’t surprised by his dog’s actions.
“He’s very adventurous. He’s always in and out of the water. He’s always shocking us with jumping off the ice and stuff like that his whole life, so I knew that he could jump in the water and swim back, no problem.”
He also feels Rocky sensed he had to come through with some heroics.
“I think he knew something out of the ordinary was going on. After it all happened, we were sitting on the shore and he’s a pretty active dog, he’s usually running around and stuff, but he came and sat down beside me and beside the girl and he didn’t move,” Shaw said.
“When the rescue team actually approached us, he was growling at them, which is kind of out of the ordinary for him, so I think he was a little scared for me or something.”
Rocky has no special training other than spending a lot of time outdoors with Shaw, who has had him since he was a puppy.
Edmonton’s fire chief presented Shaw with a fire rescue helmet for his bravery, while Rocky was given a big, rawhide bone he gnawed on enthusiastically.
Shaw said he thought about little else the whole time except getting the girls out of the frigid water.
“They were really scared. They were screaming. I just wanted to help them.”
It didn’t really hit him until later that night.
“My family came over and we started talking about it, how it could have gone a lot differently. That’s when it started to sink in. It worked out well.
“It was a good ending to a scary experience.”