An Orillia woman who scrambled through thin ice into the frigid waters of Bass Lake Sunday to save her beloved dog feels fortunate to be alive today.
She believes she was minutes away from perishing and wants dog owners and parents to be aware of the dangers of thin lake ice at this time of year.
“My dog saw a flock of birds and decided to go into the water after them,” explained Rachel Edwards.
About 20 metres from the rocky shoreline, Mia, one of Edwards' two golden retrievers, broke through the thin layer of snow-covered ice that formed near the shallow lake’s shoreline.
In a matter of seconds, Edwards said, the dog was frantically trying to stay above water and get back on solid footing.
Instinctively, Edwards decided to go into the lake to save her dog. While her sister begged her not to go, she shed her jacket and began to venture out into the frigid water.
“I don’t have kids. The dogs are my kids. I wasn’t about to stand there and watch her drown,” she said. “I didn’t think of myself.”
Edwards had to use her arms and elbows to break through the ice in places but eventually managed to reach Mia, who was struggling in what appeared to be about six to eight feet of water.
With a path cleared through the ice by Edwards, Mia was able to safely swim back to shore.
With the dog free, Edwards momentarily panicked in water that was over her head. But, she turned herself around and swam/stumbled back to shore, where she collapsed.
“I know it sounds dramatic, but I think if I had been in the water a couple of more minutes, I wouldn’t have made it,” she said.
When she emerged from the water, her arms and elbows were bloody and her body was burning up as hypothermia set in.
After taking a moment to gather herself, she began taking off her clothes and, with the help of her sister, managed to get back to her car where they blasted the heat in an attempt to warm up.
“I can only imagine what people might have thought if they saw us. I was wearing nothing but my underwear and a sports bra by the time we got back to the car,” she said.
While she can laugh now, at the time, she says, it was “insane,” stressing the incident is one that could happen to anyone.
“I grew up on the lake. I’ve been around the water all my life, I'm a good swimmer, and you kind of feel indestructible,” she said. “I was shocked at how cold the water was and how quickly things went really bad.”
She is sharing her story to help others. She wants dog owners and parents to take extra caution around waterways as the ice appears thicker than it is at this time of year.
“We are surrounded by water. This could happen almost anywhere here,” she warned.
There are also ways to ensure it doesn’t happen, she stressed.
“This was absolutely my fault,” said Edwards, who regularly takes her dogs, Mia and Maple, to Bass Lake, where she lets them run off-leash.
“I won’t be allowing them off the leash anymore, that’s for sure,” she said. “You shouldn’t trust a dog and, for me, it’s a lesson learned.”
She also regrets not calling 911. She and her sister have revisited the incident over the last 24 hours and she says they both were mistaken not to call for help.
“I’ve talked to firefighter and police friends and they said we should have called, they could have brought what they call foil blankets … it was a mistake,” she said.
As it was, Edwards and her sister and her sister’s four-year-old son and baby huddled in the overheated car for an hour before going to Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital to get checked out.
“Even today, I still feel very weak and I’m definitely not 100 per cent,” she said, adding her dog seems to be unhurt.
“I’ve never felt a burn like what I experienced with the hypothermia. It’s definitely the scariest and craziest thing that has ever happened to me,” she told OrilliaMatters.
She suggests people ensure they have emergency kits in their cars, fully charged cell phones, and be vigilant around shorelines.
“This was traumatizing. Bass Lake is one of my favourite places and I’m not sure I’ll be able to go back there,” she said. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
The OSPCA says it's important to remember that winter comes with specific risks and safety concerns. It is up to the pet guardians to ensure that "our canine companions" are kept safe this winter.
Click here to read a recent OSPCA post about winter safety for animals.