FAIRBANKS — Travis Gottlin felt helpless after his dog slipped under the Chena River ice Friday evening near the Angel Rocks trailhead and was carried away by the current.
This story has a happy ending, but it looked grim at the time for Gottlin when he peered into the hole where his Labrador mix, Ashii, had fallen.
All he could see, he said, was “just water and darkness.”
Gottlin quickly picked up a log from the riverbank and began hitting the thick ice downstream from the hole where the dog had gone in. He soon realized he didn’t have a chance to break a hole through the ice to free the dog. He started to think about how he’d have to tell his fiancée that Ashii had drowned.
“I just kind of sat down and started to cry, I didn’t think there was anything I could do” he said Monday, describing the incident by telephone.
Gottlin, a science teacher in Nenana who’s originally from Michigan, has had Ashii since the dog was a puppy, about two years. He and his fianceé have three dogs, but only Ashii came with him Friday because he needs more exercise than the other dogs.
They went out to Angel Rocks, a popular hiking trail far out on Chena Hot Springs Road. It was Gottlin’s first time on the hike. Somewhere near the beginning, where the trail parallels the Chena River, Gottlin stopped to take a picture with his cellphone.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I just saw him fall in and disappear,” he said.
Gottlin doesn’t know how much time passed after he tried and failed to break the hole in the river with a log. It felt like two minutes as he sat by the side of the river, but it could have been more like 10 seconds, he said.
Then he heard a “bump” noise under the ice and the sound of Ashii whining. The sound came from a spot under the ice about 20 feet from where the Ashii fell in.
Gottlin carefully got onto the ice, following the sound of the whining. Downstream, the ice was thinner than where Ashii had fallen through. It was thin enough that he was able to kick out a trough in the ice until he could see the dog.
Ashii stood in open water below a layer of ice, with just enough space above the water to fit his nose and eyes. The bank was shallow enough for him stand up under the ice, but the current was pushing him slowly downstream, Gottlin said.
“He saw me and once we made eye contact it was, ‘OK. We can do this,’” he said.
Gottlin kept kicking through the ice until the hole was large enough for him to grab Ashii by the collar and pull him out. Ashii was OK except for a scratch on his nose, but they were both soaking wet and went back to Gottlin’s truck to warm up.
He said he feels extremely thankful to still have Ashii and has learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of rivers around breakup time.
“I wasn’t thinking about breakup. I guess he wasn’t either,” he said.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.