By Mike Wise
Sunday, April 6, 2008; W12
Below a dirt path three miles from Georgetown where darkness had settled in and the only semblance of civilization was the headlights of commuters on Canal Road racing home to the suburbs, I looked around to see if anyone could hear or see me. From the neck down, I had been submerged in freezing water for about three minutes, unable to climb back onto the ice, through which I had fallen. I could not feel my hands or my forearms.
My dog, Looly, began to pace back and forth on the trail above, going back down but never getting too near the ice. "This is it," I thought, looking up toward her, my heart nearly pushing through my chest.
I had but one other thought at that moment: Who's going to take care of the dog? How's she going to get home?
I wish I could say my feelings then were a last act of love and concern for my pet. But that's not the truth. The truth is, by worrying about Looly at the exact moment of my own crucible, I didn't have to focus on myself. I didn't have to deal with my reality: I was alone. I was scared. And I was going to die that way.
WE HAD SET OUT ON THAT JANUARY EVENING ON OUR USUAL RUN ALONG THE C&O CANAL in Georgetown. I had parked at the end of K Street and had fed the meter enough quarters to give us an hour and a half. An easy six miles -- with a rest and stretch after three miles and all the potty breaks Looly needed -- would put us back at the car, I figured, no later than 6:45 p.m. Washington had had several straight nights in the low 20s, and I noticed a layer of ice on the canal.
Starting at the one-mile marker, with darkness approaching, I knew few other runners would be on the trail, and that was just fine. For a year and a half, the solitary ritual of my dog and me monotonously putting our feet and paws in front of one another -- striding slowly past mallard ducklings in the spring and whitetail deer peering through barren stalks of oak in November -- created the illusion of living in the country. A mile out on that trail, it was impossible to know we had passed a Ralph Lauren store 15 minutes earlier.
Out on the C&O, which spans an incredible 184.5 miles from Washington to Cumberland, Md., a person can process things and let go. Plumb the heart and gut. Use the mind as a distiller. Then rid the body of it all on the way back to the car.
That night, I was thinking about my job; my sister, Valeska, back home in Northern California, worried sick over my pregnant niece; and Michael Wilbon, my friend and colleague, who had suffered a heart attack the night before, at age 49, while sleeping beside his wife, Sheryl. Wilbon, who had encouraged The Post to hire me as a sports columnist, was someone I worried about. Beginning with their crackling partnership in The Post sports department three decades ago, he and Tony Kornheiser had found the Holy Grail of the modern media world -- their personalities had trumped the news. But the tradeoff for money, fame and universal respect was their time and, in Wilbon's case, his health. When Wilbon was on a panel honoring the late Post sportswriter Shirley Povich last year, I remember him responding to a question of how he managed to fit everything in.
"You can sleep when you die," he said.
As I trudged along that night, contemplating Wilbon's brush with death, I was put in touch with my own mortality at age 44. I had promised myself I would slow down after a minor health scare a week before Thanksgiving, but I hadn't.
A slight woman with long, dark hair was running by herself in front of us for almost two miles until she turned off at a bridge just before the four-mile marker on the canal. Looly, whom I had allowed to run unleashed -- legally a no-no in the national park -- tried to catch up with her several times. But the woman seemed uninterested.
I remember thinking, I wonder if she's turning off because it's now dark and she has a 6-foot-4 stranger following her. Lit by the streetlights on Canal Road and rays of moonlight illuminating the 12-foot-wide towpath, visibility on the first two miles is usually good. But as my feet pounded the two-by-fours on the long wooden bridge that ends just before our three-mile turnaround -- maybe 200 yards before Chain Bridge -- it was hard to make out much on the ground.
I stopped and stretched my calves by holding onto an ancient cement marker that resembles a gravestone. I absently threw a stick ahead on the towpath for Looly, hoping to keep her entertained while I stretched. The stick ricocheted off the ground and onto the ice a few feet from the bank. My dog went down gingerly, curiously, and I seem to remember encouraging her to scavenge for a piece of ice near the shore because she looked thirsty.
As I stretched, I could barely make out the engraved words on that weathered cement marker. Looly was unsure of herself, puzzled over where the water had gone, and she quickly returned to the towpath and meandered into the woods behind the headstone. The perfectly smooth surface of the frozen canal looked like Wollman Rink in New York's Central Park after a Zamboni had buffed its surface snow white, before anyone could shave the ice with skates.
I continued stretching for at least two minutes and looked around for Looly again.
This time, I was surprised to see she had ventured out onto the ice, all the way to the middle, about 30 feet offshore. She seemed to be headed for the other side, where some of the water was unfrozen and, in her canine mind, drinkable.
"Looly! Get back here!"
She turned around and took two steps toward me before the ice broke.
IN THE SUMMER OF 2006, MY FRIEND AND I PULLED UP TO A BREEDER'S HOME IN POOLESVILLE. I had tried every kind of search of every regional animal shelter for six months without being able to find a companion.
I had wanted a dog since Queenie died in 1993. Valeska and I found her, a stray puppy on our doorstep, in Hawaii 17 years before. Named by my fourth-grade sister for Queen Liliuokalani, the islands' last reigning monarch, she was a medium-size collie mix with thick, black fur and a white mane.
Queenie was the most intuitive animal I had ever known. She sensed your mood, especially sadness and grief. When my mother unexpectedly died in July 1993, Queenie, who by then had cataracts, could not hear well and had only several months left herself, would clickety-clack her tired paws across the kitchen linoleum after each emotional phone call that summer. She would bury her nose in my lap until I acknowledged her. If a dog could say, "I'm sorry for your loss," it would be Queenie. Our first dog, Kaiser, a German shepherd puppy, was brought home when I was 4 and Valeska was 2. When our parents were separating and we saw things children should not see, I would open the sliding door to the back yard and lay my head on Kaiser's stomach as he slept.
I had now been without a dog for almost 13 years, my sportswriting jobs in New York and Washington dominating my time and life. One day I walked into The Post and told an assistant editor, "I'm getting a dog." To which the editor replied: "You can't have a dog. You travel too much."
But I knew it was time.
Victoria, the woman who raised and sold the yellow Lab-golden retriever mix puppies with the cute blond eyelashes in Poolesville, steered me away from newborns and said I'd be better off with a three- to four-month-old dog because I lived alone. There were three left in the litter -- two girls and a boy. The boy was rambunctious beyond belief, rolling in mud as soon as we got him out of his pen.
His sisters were bashful and a little afraid of men for some reason. One in particular, the thinner of the two, wasn't overly excited about anything. But she kept following me each time I walked away, a fact my friend Dani noticed.
"She picked you," Dani said.
I named her Talula Luca Copacabana Lola Liliuokalani Wise -- a.k.a. Looly. (The dogs that win the Westminster Dog Show always have six or seven snooty names, so why not my mix-breed dog?) In a year's time, the shy, gangly girl became more outgoing and grew into a robust 65-pound beast.
At the back of my 2007 calendar, under goals, one of my listings included using my vacation to take a cross-country trip with Looly so we could "further bond." I actually wrote that about a dog. In my experience, animals had yet to let me down the way people had. They just craved affection and care and feeding. And they reciprocated with an unconditional love -- a trust and loyalty I once had trouble finding in myself.
Looly and I headed west late last June. We took the northern route, through South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nevada and, finally, Woodland, Calif., where she would meet Jasper, my brother-in-law's black Lab mix, who showed Looly how to perform a squeaker-ectomy on a toy squirrel.
As a puppy, she had been frightened of the water in the canal when we ran, and watched longingly as a trio of Labs swan-dived into the gunk every Saturday. But now, as we rolled through Montana, she jumped into the Powder River without a care. She leapt into the Yellowstone during a fishing trip, and the roiling Gallatin the next day, fighting the current to work her way across the body of water and fetch the stick I had thrown. A quarter-mile downstream, she would fight to get to the side, shake herself off and want more.
She grew bolder in Idaho, jumping into the east fork of the fast and furious Snake River on the Fourth of July, encouraging me to throw large sticks out as far as I could. New friends, worried for her safety, suggested I stop before she tired and got caught in the current, but she kept going, undaunted.
In the Colorado River during our trip back, Looly had tried to swim upstream to where I was standing and had gotten caught in a slow, steady riffle, unable to make progress. After two minutes, I started to worry and rushed down the side of a hill to get closer to where she was. She abandoned the quest and swam to the bank, shaking every droplet off her and onto me.
I had felt a rush of panic for a few fleeting moments. But she wanted to go back out immediately. She was no longer a timid girl. The summer had made her courageous.
"Come on, baby! Come on!"
I kept yelling, running along the bank frantically as Looly flailed her legs in the freezing water. The C&O Canal, I would later learn, is about 60 feet across at that point -- and Looly was out at least 30 feet, past dead center.
She worked hard to get her forelegs onto a sheet of ice able to support her weight, but her paws kept sliding off. Once. Twice. Three times. Maybe four. The more determined her effort, the more violently Looly plunged beneath the surface in a series of loud splashes. She began whimpering, looking at me helplessly before she went under once more.
Without thinking, I lowered myself carefully down a four-foot bank onto the ice. I had seen a show on cable in which an outdoorsman demonstrated how to distribute his weight on the ice by lying flat. I figured if I could slide on my rear end out close to where she was, Looly would feel a pang of adrenaline and pull herself up on the ice, toward me.
Why I believed, even for a moment, that ice broken by a 65-pound dog would not cave in under my 200-plus pounds, I am not sure. But I knew the surface had to be thicker closer to the shore, and I was making steady progress. I had come within five feet of Looly and was reaching for her forelegs when the ice broke again. I plunged completely under. The chill of the water shocked me like a dental drill hitting an exposed nerve. I spit and tried not to swallow, but I could not rid my mouth of the canal's contents, a gravel-like texture that tasted of sulfur. I moved toward where Looly had fallen through. Now we both flailed. I had played out the scenarios as I was sliding toward her, and what I came up with was this:
I fall through to a bottom of probably four or five feet, get my footing, lift Looly onto ice thick enough to hold her and fight my way back up on the ice myself. The canal, so tranquil during the spring and summer, was a body of still water. Its only apparent danger seemed to be its pea-green and brownish color, its dirty sediment and lingering stench. But I couldn't touch bottom. And I couldn't lift Looly while trying to keep myself afloat. Within a minute, I knew we were both in trouble.
I turned back toward the shore and lunged forward, trying to get my torso up on the ice. But every time I got my forearms up, the ice broke again, and I went under.
Within two minutes, I couldn't feel my hands. My lower extremities were beginning to feel numb, too. Looly was in worse shape. She had been in the water a minute longer than I had, and her frantic paddling had slowed to short, measured strokes. She kept trying to rest her paws on my back and my arms, to keep her head above water. I could feel her claws digging into my back. She didn't have long.
I tried two more times to lurch my upper body up onto the ice, but each time it broke again, and I was briefly submerged. I was still very close to the middle of the canal, and the numbness had now spread to my forearms. I still couldn't stand.
The small pool of water we shared was just a few feet from where we had fallen through. The ice couldn't bear the weight of my lunging, but I found a stable piece thick enough to rest on and keep my head out of the water. I propped my left arm up, like a kid leaning against the side of a community swimming pool in the deep end. Then, resting the back of my neck and head against another corner of the punctured ice, I put my right arm under the dog, just below her abdomen, like a large fishing hook.
I was kicking to stay afloat. I didn't have much strength left when I jerked my right arm upward as hard as I could, using it to catapult Looly out. As her hind legs began to clear the water, I shoved her bottom for good measure. She just made it onto the ice.
Amazingly, it didn't crack. She scampered up the bank, a bit disoriented, and shook off for a good, long while -- sprinting down the towpath like she always does when she gets out of the water. She soon came back and seemed to realize her owner was in danger.
I had been in the freezing water for about three minutes, I figured. I half-remembered reading an article that said hypothermia could set in between four and seven minutes. In the article, a man fell off a log into a freezing stream. He grabbed a branch to prevent himself from being taken downstream, but none of his companions could reach him. Resigning himself to his fate, the man calmly gave an oral living will to his grief-stricken friends above, knowing he would lose all feeling soon and eventually drift away to an icy death.
I drew in deep breaths and paused maybe 10 seconds. I figured I had one minute, maybe two, of physical exertion left. I felt nothing in my hands and arms, which just slid off the ice each time I tried to pull myself up. The thickness of the ice had supported the dog's weight closer to shore, but now I couldn't break it solely with my hands. The solitude I had enjoyed moments earlier was now a terrifying loneliness.
I began to consider my options and arrived at a plan I should have thought of before I went in after her.
"HELP! HELP! PLEASE. SOMEBODY. ANYBODY. HELP!!!"
After yelling, I once more tried to hoist my body out of the water. But my hands no longer felt like they were part of me. Suddenly, I didn't feel cold or frozen. And that, I would learn later, meant I was heading into stage two of hypothermia. I remember leaning my elbows on the ice for balance and looking at Looly pacing along the bank.
I wanted to believe there was an internal survival mechanism that would kick in, an uberhuman force that would enable me to rescue myself. But losing muscular function prevents those surreal endings. Humans are said to be able to survive in freezing water for up to 15 minutes, but by then the metabolism has slowed to a crawl and we are unable to perform the easiest of physical tasks. I was thinking all those things when I heard footsteps on the towpath.
A young man emerged from the darkness. He had dark hair and was wearing running clothes. I could tell by his labored breathing he had been on a long run. He began to walk down the bank.
"Hey, so what are you doing in the ice?" he said.
"Can you give me your hand?" I asked. I remember my tone being desperate, panicked.
At first he looked confused, like a student who had walked into the wrong classroom. But then he took another step, a few feet off the bank. Both his feet went through the ice, and he was in maybe up to his knees. He took another step, making sure he got his footing. I lunged toward him through the water, grabbing the ice as best as I could, and for the first time I felt the sensation of the bottom.
"I can stand, I can stand."
Of all the things in my life that have given me relief from physical pain or emotional grief -- massage, medication, the support of my sister and friends -- nothing equaled the exhilarating feeling of touching the bottom of the C&O Canal that night. I later learned that the canal was built with a deep center channel, and that the drop-off was sharp and steep less than 10 feet from shore.
In saying "I can stand," what I really meant was: "I'm going to live."
I began to move forward as the young runner broke the surface by pushing his feet through the ice. I thought he was knee-deep in the water, but he was actually up to his chest when I began to take large steps and break the ice immediately in front of me. Suddenly, there was a narrow pathway carved through the ice, leading to shore. I reached for him and, together, we made it up the bank and out.
I sat on the ground shivering, soaked and frozen, my knees nearly pulled toward my chest, my heart pumping wildly. As I was catching my breath, I recall saying: "Thanks. Thanks a lot. You really helped me out."
"What were you doing in there?" he asked. He still seemed a little uncertain about what had just transpired.
"My . . . my dog. She fell in. I had to go get her out."
"You want me to call 911 for you?" he asked.
"I'm just frozen. I just need to thaw out. I'll be all right. Can you check on me on your way back?"
He said he was going toward Georgetown, meaning I would not see him again. I knew there was a bathroom at Fletcher's Cove, where daytime visitors can rent boats and kayaks on the adjacent Potomac River. If it was open, I told him, I would warm up in there. If I felt dizzy or in trouble, I could cross the wooden bridge there and walk up to Canal Road and flag down a car for help.
"You sure?" he asked.
His body was soaked and cold, and he wanted to stay warm by continuing his run. As he sped off, I yelled: "Hey, wait. What's your name?"
"Jason," he said. "Jason Coates."
"Where do you work?"
"I'm a law student at GW."
As he disappeared back into the darkness, Looly approached me and licked my forehead. She had dried off as best as she could, but the water on her chest had crystallized into frozen droplets.
"Good girl, good girl," I said, running my fingers through her wet fur. As she sat down beside me, I curled up in a fetal position for maybe three minutes and sobbed.
SHAKEN, UNSURE OF MY GAIT, I STAGGERED LIKE A WOOZY BOXER TOWARD FLETCHER'S COVE and don't remember seeing anyone. My hands were still frozen stiff but my legs began to warm.
When Looly and I got there, the bathroom was open and had a blower for drying your hands. For maybe the next 30 minutes, I directed the dryer to my hands, arms and chest. I discarded the thick, cotton sweatshirt and hung it over a bathroom stall. I wrung as much water as I could out of my running shirt. I looked at myself in the mirror. My torso was bright pink. My face was ghost white and my pupils were enlarged. My heart still pounded violently.
I learned later that cold-water immersion is best when first thawing frozen hands and fingers. The blower felt like sewing needles stabbing into my fingertips. But within 20 minutes, I had close-to-normal feeling again.
I walked to Canal Road twice, halfheartedly trying to flag a car down and get a ride back to Georgetown. But drivers were zooming by at close to 50 mph, and I didn't want the dog getting near the road.
Shivering in 35-degree weather, I walked back down to the bathroom and used the dryer for another five minutes. Still flush with adrenaline, I ran as hard as I possibly could the next two-plus miles to the car. Looly never ventured near the canal the entire way and stayed within six inches of my back heel.
When I got to the meter it had expired, but there was no ticket.
I WANT TO REMEMBER THE FEELING OF GETTING HOME AND RUNNING A HOT BATH THAT NIGHT -- and then of cradling a reluctant Looly and carefully depositing her in the same bath water after I got out -- of massaging her paws, her ears and kissing her forehead, of drying her off and then having to wage a tug of war for her shredded bath towel.
I want to remember calling Valeska in California and hearing her voice.
I want to remember exchanging messages with Wilbon that night. He was having heart surgery the next day, and I told him he was in my prayers, but I didn't reveal my own close call.
I want to remember waking the next morning, a morning I almost never saw, and Looly, having jumped up on the bed, fully stretching out her frame, nudging closer and closer, until our noses were six inches apart.
I want to remember everything about that run back to the car, our hearts pulsating together in a single, metronomic beat. We were still a little frozen and still a little terrified even though we were on solid ground, back on our path. We were racing home and into all the days still ahead of us.
Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.