The City of Edmonton is urging pet owners to keep a close eye on their animals near the river as calls for rescues soar.
So far this year, Edmonton Fire Rescue Services has responded to 77 calls for rescues on the North Saskatchewan River. This is compared to 24 during the same time period in 2020.
The majority of the recent rescues have happened in off-leash dog parks along the river, including Sir Wildfrid Laurier, Buena Vista, Hermitage and Terwillegar parks.
EFRS responded to multiple calls Wednesday of dogs falling into the North Saskatchewan River near Sir Wilfred Laurier Park and the adjacent Buena Vista Park, which prompted reminders about river safety.
The first incident happened at 1:30 p.m. Crews responded to reports that a bernedoodle puppy fell into the river. People on shore were trying to keep it in sight, but the dog was lost underwater.
Crews tried to locate the dog but gave up the search. The dog was identified on Facebook as a four-month-old female named Rosie.
Shortly after, another call about a black lab falling in just down the river came into 911. That dog was able to rescue itself and emergency crews were called off.
Then at 4:30 p.m., firefighters were called back to the west Edmonton park to rescue two more dogs that fell into the river.
Lacey Gilmour was walking her boxer across the footbridge that connects Buena Vista and Hawrelak parks when she saw two dogs — one that looked like a German shepherd and another grey dog that appeared to be a bully breed — in the water.
“I stood there for probably about five minutes, watching,” she said, adding her dog was losing it while watching the other canines struggle and she became nauseous at the hopelessness of the situation.
“It was terrible — terrifying.”
“It was so difficult to watch all the people involved down on the ground, trying to put leashes together. There was a guy that wandered onto the ice and then people were yelling at him to get off the ice,” she said.
Gilmour said the dogs stayed in the same spot they fell in, fighting the current while trying to keep their owners in view. She said both dogs were fighting in vain to get back on the ice, and the German shepherd ended up going under for 15 to 30 seconds while trying to find an edge to grab on to.
“At that point, I got pretty nauseous,” she said. “So I left. Then as I was crossing the bridge, I heard the sirens.”
Gilmour said she continued with her dog walk through Buena Vista Park, and when she looped back to return to Hawrelak, the hysteria was over and it looked like nothing had happened at all.
The city said crews were able to successfully rescue the dogs in the afternoon, but reports of four different pets falling into the water in a single day in or around the popular dog park is cause for concern.
“As we have said before, the current ice conditions are extremely dangerous,” EFRS said in a statement to 630 CHED.
“We cannot stress the importance enough for citizens and their dogs to avoid the river and its banks.”
If a person or a dog falls into the river, EFRS says to call 911 immediately and try to keep an eye on them but never follow them into the water in a rescue attempt.
“The currents are swift-moving, and the ice shelves are unpredictable,” the statement read.
Last week, a 55-year-old Edmonton man tried to save a dog from river ice near the same dog park when he vanished into the frigid water.
The search and rescue began around 12:30 p.m. but was called off that evening.
EFRS said the man was walking his dog when he came across a woman whose dog had run onto the river ice. He stopped to help, and both the man and the dog fell when the ice broke.
On Sunday, firefighters were called to Terwillegar Park where a dog fell through a crack in the ice. Firefighters were able to locate the dog and pull it into their raft. (Video below)
All of the incidents happened in or near off-leash dog parks. Gilmour said the area where the dogs fell in on Wednesday afternoon is a popular spot for dogs to play, get a drink and go for a swim in the summer.
“They have no concept of thin ice,” she said. “They can’t help — they just run down there, they don’t think about it.”
Gilmour said her dog is not a swimming breed so she keeps him close by when near water: “It’s terrifying to watch because if he went in there, like, he’s going down.”
“We won’t go back until the ice is melted. That was pretty traumatic.”
Walking on the ice is never safe, the city cautions. The thickness varies due to several factors, including constantly moving water, changing river depths, chemicals in the water and warm spots near drainage outflow pipes.
“You want to help right?” Gilmour said. “All of us on the bridge, like, we’re just all standing there wishing we could do something, but, you know, there’s nothing you can do.”
Gilmour, who at the time didn’t know someone had died last week attempting a similar rescue, said the man who tried to help on Wednesday had a large stick and was on his hands and knees, testing the ice while a woman screamed at him to stop.
“Good for her to yell at him because, I mean, when you’re standing there watching your best friend fighting for his life, you want to just get in there and save them.”
In water that’s close to freezing, hypothermia can set in within minutes, and people’s limbs go numb to the point of uselessness, EFRS said. Even before that, the panic and shock of falling into icy, cold water can be disorienting.
“It is so very important that humans and dogs alike avoid the river. The conditions of the ice and water flow are unpredictable and dangerous,” fire chief Joe Zatylny said.
“Don’t underestimate your dog’s draw to the water. Open water attracts pets who can have difficulty overcoming the swift water current to exit safely back onto an ice shelf or river bank.”
Pet owners are strongly encouraged to keep their dogs on a leash around water during fall and spring freeze-thaw cycles.
If you see a dog or person fall into the water, call 911 immediately. Establish and maintain a point of reference where the person or animal was last seen and never attempt to rescue them on your own, EFRS warns.