As I now live in the centre of Manchester, and being cooped up in a flat is certainly not enjoyable for a dog, Bess, our well loved Staffordshire Bull Terrier currently lives at home with my parents.
As my father is usually at work all day, usually it falls to my mother to walk her.
Recently they had an incident that was a very close call, so I asked her if she’d be willing to write an account of it for my blog.
Here it is.
When you’ve read it, please consider leaving a comment.
My mother writes:
As some of you know…
I was 60 years, 11 months and 27 days old last Thursday 7th January 2010. I was a fit, outdoor and morris dancing grandmother. I still am, but I’m different, too!
At that time, probably 9 inches of snow had fallen, but with drifted snow from the barren moors of Bleaklow, in Old Glossop we were now under a foot or more of snow. We had spent the previous two days ~ first, ‘holed up’ in the house; and then, next digging ourselves out. So Bess, our 8 year old brindled ‘Staffie’, had had make do with walks in Manor Park, and up the Doctor’s Gate track to the sledging fields of Mossy Lea.
Thus on the third day of the Snow, I decided it was time for a bit of outdoors, with a proper walk for Bess. Bess loves snow and goes quite loopy in it (she was a 3 month old puppy the first time she encountered it, and it seems to trigger in her memories and behaviour of that age), even now. At least to start with.
So I decided on our ‘usual’ ~ up the Cock Hill track, diagonally across the Lower Blake Moor to the far gate, round the end of the Lower Shelter Belt, then back across Middle Blake Moor to the Cock Hill track again, and back down Charles Lane. Normally it would be a short hour, but given the conditions, I expected a long two hours ~ good for dispersing ‘festive fat’!
It was fine up Charles Lane. It was tough but exhilarating up the Cock Hill track. It was…ooooh ..such deep snow ~ thigh deep at the bottom of Blake Moor! I floundered, and Bess sank! She is a very thin, tall, leggy ‘Staffie’, (she has all the Manchester Terrier part of her breed’s heritage). So, though she slices through snow up to 10 inches ~ deeper snow, and she sinks! Did we turn back? No!
I knew the bottom of the Moor would have the deepest drifts, and surely this depth snow meant that the higher part would be pretty well blown clear. I pointed out to Bess that if she accepted my leadership, she could follow with relative ease in the sunken path I cut.
She was the lucky one! It was shattering to be ploughing up the hillside through such snow! And I was wrong, the Moor had not been blown clear. I had to stop every few minutes or so, to recover my breath. Bess did not even bother to suggest that she would take a turn of leading, as she normally would do, she just puffed too. Despite the bitter breeze that blew over the tops from the East, I was sweating, and opened my water/wind-proof jacket, and then my fleece, and till finally I had my scarf round my waist. It was such hard work lifting my knee to hip level to step through the snow.
At last, in the lee of the Shelter Belt (a pine tree plantation) the snow was shallower ~ six inches or so, and Bess was off, following up every scent. There were many small prints ~ hares and rabbits (easy to differentiate), and squirrels in amongst the edge of the pines. And cruising round and about, and in and out of the tufts of moorland grass and rushes, was the predatory track of a stoat.
Bess was in heaven! Here, at last were interesting, new smells ~ not the same, old, predictable messages from same old dogs, in the same old places down in the Village.
However, as we cornered the Shelter Belt, I knew exactly why it is called a ‘shelter belt’. The snow was thigh deep again, and the easterly wind was cutting. Bess dropped in behind me again ~ no hesitation. The snowon Middle Moor was waist deep! I floundered up the Moor for about 10 yards and knew, that my energy was definitely finite, and that any attempt to cross Middle Moor back to the Cock Hill track for home, would simply be foolish.
On my left was the gate leading to the track back down into Blackshaw Clough and on to Swineshaw Reservoir. Although the gateway was blocked by a chest high drift, I knew it would be sheltered in the woods beyond and below. I virtually swam through the gateway, and then I gazed appalled at a deep undulating snowfield, 30 yards wide, that lay between us and the wood’s shore. Was I up to struggling across such a distance, at such a depth? I really felt daunted!
Bess sorted the problem. She saw against the wall, a narrow channel in the snow (six inches wide), cut by the swirl of the wind as it blew along the side of the wall. We could edge along it, and escape into the wood and its shelter. It was an awful wallowing scramble. I am wider than six inches so I didn’t fit the gap too well, even with my ash-stave walking stick to support me, the uneven form of the wall pitched me sideways full length into the snow, again and again. I had to keep reminding myself that it was just a few more yards to shelter and easy walking.
The snow gully ended in one last monster drift, as the wind reached the woods and eddied around dropping its load of snow. It took such an enormous effort to cross it, as I swam, wallowed, floundered and rolled! Nothing I could do made it easier! I wanted to give up! When gasping, snow crystals choking me, I took a ‘breather’, Bess used me as a spring board to make a final leap out of the drift and into the wood! At last, I too rolled out of the drift, found my feet again and shook myself, so relieved that now the going would be easy!
We swung off down the track though the woods, quickly recovering from our exertions, and exhilarated by the challenges we had faced together. We met Naylor’s Galloway/Highland cross-breed herd of cattle sheltering in the woods. I passed them, and in Bess’s case stopped to exchange greetings with them. They are familiar with Bess, so she and they spent some time on the various amiable encounters.
Out beyond the woods, Swineshaw Reservoir lay calm and still in the weak winter sunshine of late afternoon, and, as it transpired, the scene of our most frightening and demanding test yet!
Bess went under the gate, and I went over. And indeed, we were back in the world of ‘dog walkers’ ~ the snow was only nine inches deep, and criss-crossed with human, dog and sledge prints. The Reservoir completely frozen over. That is, except for a small circular patch of clear water (eight foot in diameter), and about ten feet away from the bank ~ where a culverted stream enters the reservoir underwater.
Out on the ice were a few very large black stones embedded in the ice. Clearly they had been taken from the nearby wall, and ‘lobbed’ out onto the ice, to test its bearing capacity. Also paddling around in the ice hole was a cluster of wild ducks.
Now ‘Duck Hunting’ is Bess’s hobby. In the wild, she is allowed to pit her wits against the ducks’ wits ~ in that they have the overalladvantage in being able to fly, and swim. Bess certainly cannot fly,but neither can she swim! So whilst the ducks have all the advantages, Bess gets all the fun of the chase, and she loves the exhilaration!
The ducks here, foolishly left the water of the ice-hole and started waddling about on the ice, looking very, very inept and very, very tempting. Anyone could see that, I didn’t have to be a dog to see that!
But, I am ‘Boss-Dog’, and Bess accepts that, though as ‘Second in Command’ she is allowed to question my judgement on occasion. I looked her in the eye, said clearly and firmly, “NO”, and she understood my strange and mystifying prohibition on these clearly ‘wild ducks’. (Park ducks, in any park, are ‘verboten’, a rule that she enforces herself, and her understanding of what constitutes a ‘park’ being very precise.)
She looked back to the ducks, then looked back up at my face, querying my decision. Again I told her “No ducks”, and she accepted my foolish decision, her eyes and body told me so, and she turned away to investigate other smells.
So, with the duck issue clearly resolved, I turned and strode off along the edge of the Reservoir, keen to do a circuit of it, before the light gave out ~ this walk was taking a lot longer than I had originally planned.
Something ~ something I didn’t consciously hear, maybe a splash or a yelp ~ made me turn and look back for Bess.
NIGHTMARE! I see Bess’s head sink below the water in the ice-hole!
I start to run, in heavy boots, back through the cut-up calf-deep snow. I’ve 15 yards to cove. I seem to run so slowly! Bess comes up to the surface, and Bess cannot swim!
Her front paws flail at the ice edge, trying for a grip. The thin ice breaks under paws. She sinks again!
I run. I am getting closer to the bank nearest her. But what will I DO then? We are five minutes from the nearest house, and they are easily 15 minutes from emergency services. Help is not at hand.
(Through my mind runs the level voice (no sympathy, and an attempt at no reproof) of a newscaster reporting that an elderly woman and the family pet dog (both drowned), were pulled from a Pennine reservoir after going missing the day before; they had been discovered by dog walkers!)
Her head surfaces again!
I must encourage her to keep trying, to keep battling against the killing cold water and the awful fear, whilst I try to reach her! If she sinks, I know that, with that ice and cold, there would be nothing I could do. I could not go through and below the ice to save her. I MUST keep her at the surface!
“Good Girl!” I call, warmly ~ putting everything positive into my voice to keep her going.
She looks at me, as flailing still and breaking off more thin ice at the edge of the hole. She sinks again!
And her head surfaces, again!
“Clever Girl” I approve. Her liquid chocolate brown eyes are locked on mine.
Amazingly she isn’t choking, the bitter cold has ejected all breath from her body, and her diaphragm stays in spasm! It is a battle, on one side the killing cold of the water and her inability to swim, (as a ‘Staffie’ with narrow hind quarters, she just hangs down in the water, her barrel chest her only buoyancy, thus she cannot go through water, only up and down), and on the other side, her physical reserves and emotional stamina, which I must support and add to.
At last! I have reached the nearest edge of the bank. But she is still ten foot away from me, across unknown, untrustworthy ice! The edge of the ice is not even joined the the sloping paved reservoir bank! I can see water ~ black killing cold water ~ just waiting, now for me. So malevolent, just waiting for me to get it wrong.
Again Bess tries to get a grip of the ice edge with her front paws. This time the ice does not break under her weight, but she slides off the edge, and under yet again!
How many times will she disappear under the water? Which will be the last? Will I never see those loving, trusting eyes again? What will Tim (my son, to whom this dear dog was a birthday present all those years ago) say or feel? The two strands are running through my head ~ the practical choices in front of me, and the bigger story in which I’m just a tiny actor with an enormous influence.
Astonishingly, yet again she surfaces, kicks violently and gets her elbows and chin resting on the ice edge. And stays! Her body in that bitter, biting black cold, but her head out, in air! Her warm round brown eyes hold mine.
I have encouraged her to do all she could, she has kept on trying. She is not drowning, but equally she will die soon ~ either from the cold whilst holding on to the edge of the ice, or more likely from her grip failing and finally sliding back into that awful, grasping, squeezing black water!
I must move ~ now!.
I step down the bank to the water, with my wooden stave I smash the thin ice at the edge. I step into that space, my boots fill with liquid ice. With my stick I pound farther out. Bess watches my every move ~ trust and understanding written across that loving face. The ice breaks again, and with my stick I feel how the bank slopes below the inky water. Deep, but not a sheer drop ~ that would be death. I step forward, now thigh deep. So utterly cold!
A third time I hammer the ice with my stick. I fear that this is all taking such a long time. That this utter cold will sap Bess’s reserves, just hanging there on the ice edge, and that she will yet, still gently slide back into the water, to disappear for ever.
This time the ice holds. Is that good or bad? Bess is still six foot away from me across this ice. What am I to DO? Can I trust this ice? Bess trusts me. If she were human I could lean out with my stick, she would grasp it and I could pull her to safety. Her lead around my waist would work just as well with a human, but she is a dog! She has no hands.
So I must reach her.
I must spread my weight as widely as possible over the ice. That murderous ice, that just waits, daring me. I don’t want to do it. That way lies the path to an awful black horrible struggling death!
Bess silently watches my face, as I assess what lies before me. She makes no move to hurry me or sway me. She just looks, and will accept my choice whatever it is, when I make it. I look at her and see her trust, love and acceptance in her eyes. Whatever I do will be right. What a loving gift!
I look at the ice again.
And slowly, I lean out and lie star-shaped over the frozen surface. My wooden stick across under my armpits, my arms wide so that my hands are on the stick at either side, (if the ice breaks the stick may help me find my feet and balance), my legs wide spread too, one foot just hanging over my hole near the bank. As I give my weight to the ice, Bess and I lock eyes. This could be the end of us both, and we both know it, and yet it is also the only way out for both of us.
That frightful cold ice does nothing. It holds! But I still cannot reach Bess! I am going to have to move nearer her thin, treacherous edge. It could break and tip her back into the water. It could break and tip me away from the bank into her ice-hole too, putting me the wrong side of the ice sheet, as unable to climb out, just as she is unable.
Again I am immobile, struggling with my choices. (Were she suddenly swept away in a flood I would accept with anguish; but slowly, before my eyes, apparently not ~ I must continue to act.) And time is flowing on, and the utter unforgiving cold, seeping in through my clothes, is a reminder.
I inch forward. The ice holds. I put out my right hand. It just reaches, but NOT grips Bess’s collar. It is not enough! I must go even nearer that Edge.
But no! Bess feels my touch. She makes a heroic scrambling, struggling, flailing wriggle. My fingers close on her collar properly, and I’m pulling her poor cold bare tummy over the vicious sharp edge of the ice.
And she’s OUT! On top of me! Over me! Sliding over the ice. Falling into my original foot holes in the ice! Then on, up the bank and into the ordinary safe snowy world!
I just lie on the ice watching her. She tears around, scraping her sides against the wall, against trees ~ scraping the icy water out of her fur. Instinct seem to fill her body with a new adrenaline surge, ensuring that she keeps warm.
Relief surges over me! I slide back over the ice, just believing my luck. Fall into my own original foot holes in the ice in my hurry to leave that uncertain world behind, and finally I scramble up the bank and shakily to my feet. I am wet from my crutch down, with icy water. A thin east wind is blowing, the sun has set and it feels bitterly cold.
I shout to Bess to “Come! Run!”, and we run. Back to the gate. My wet gloves instantly freeze to the metal rungs of the gate. It must be very cold!
We trot back down the snowy track, past Cote Lodge Farm with its peacocks and curious piglets. Bess is so recovered, that she stops for some socialising with the piglets through the fence! I feel this is excessive, and gallop on towards home.
Ten minutes jogging sees us to our front door, and I find that Bess has ice along her back and icicles from her whiskers, whilst my trousers are frozen stiff with ice, anywhere that does not actually touch my skin. Inside I run a hot bath for Bess, leave a heap of wet icy clothes on the stone kitchen floor, then bath Bess. For once, she neither tries to escape nor groans and shudders with her dislike of water, but accepts its soothing warmth. Even more she clearly appreciates the radiator-warmed towel. She bounds off round the house, baths always send her potty!
Bess done, it is at last my turn. I sink into a lovely cradling hot water, so very much the opposite of all I feared and faced! I was most wonderfully lucky, and I believe, given my choices that afternoon, I used my wits to tip the scales as far as possible to my advantage.
Why did Bess go out on the ice?
One of those black stones ‘lobbed’ out onto the ice was not a stone. As we galloped for the gate, I saw that the stone nearest to Bess was actually a dead black and white goose, (only the black bits showed up), frozen into the ice!
Goose is even better than duck, in someone’s book!
That night Manchester recorded the coldest temperature in Britain -17oC.
Four days later I am alive to celebrate my 61th birthday!