By Stephanie Vallejo, Lopez Island Caregiver
The saga of the rescue of Sage all starts with a Facebook post on Jan. 24. Jane Albrecht’s beloved senior golden retriever, Sage, went missing.
Albrecht is a Lopez Island community leader in animal care and the leader of the Lopez Animal Protection Society. She guessed that Sage left her house through a dog door that he had never used before after being confused by a seizure, then wandered off into the evening. Sage is 14 years old, has an enlarged heart, arthritis, is deaf and had recently started having seizures.
The community rallied. Karlena Pickering and Randy Wilburn brought their drones down. Jo Bryant; Karen Wilburn; Aaryn Knox; Marge McCoy; Megan McCoy; Carey Chenowith; Susannah Dunlop; Araminta Midkiff and her dedicated son Leif joined the section-by-section combing of Albrecht’s property and the surrounding area. No square foot went unsearched for more than days.
People were using aerial maps on their phones to highlight areas to be searched. Folks were driving, hiking, and handing out flyers to every person they passed. Leif, who is 6 years old, searched down “dog tunnels” in the brush. He had heard about Sage and my limited attempt to crawl through the tunnels to look for him. This sweet young man looked at his mama and said “I can fit.” (Grab a tissue and dab your eyes; Lopezians love their dog friends) That kid crawled through scratchy brush, searched under every dank deck plus he and his mama searched the Davis Head area. They had even searched the area Sage would eventually be found in, though he was not likely there at the time. Lopezians had exhausted the search but island-wide people were told to keep their eyes peeled.
We worry about what we know is possible, that this may become a recovery instead of a rescue, but we were all holding onto hope and were determined to bring him home no matter what.
And then, on Jan. 28, the call came in from Albrecht. “Jim found him!” Relief! Amazing. “Where is he?” Jane explained he was stuck near Mya Cove laying in the water on an inaccessable rocky outcrop. The final stretch of the rescue was going to require a landslide of miracles — and we got them all.
Jim “Eagle Eye” Parker is just about the only person on this part of Lopez this time of the year. He also knows Sage.
Parker miraculously spotted Sage — a little red dot at the base of a rock wall in the Cove — from across Davis Bay. He tried to reach Sage himself but wasn’t able to get to him, so Parker went to find Albrecht.
Sage could be seen, but wasn’t able to be reached by land — the searchers needed a boat. I called the first person I trusted most to keep me safe on the chilly water and rocks — Knox. Unfortunately, Knox had a bruised sternum and was not feeling great. He had come out to search earlier in the week but today his skill set would be priceless and injury aside, he came out to help.
Knox and I launched the canoe and followed Parker’s directions around a couple of rocky points. As we came around the first one, I could see the little red dot that was Sage. When I say Parker is a hero, I mean his eyes need a special commendation, because no one else could have seen Sage.
As we were paddling, Sage’s problem became clear. At first, he seemed to be slipping down, but we quickly realized that it was actually the tide that was rising.
Sage was laying in the water on a big rock and he was unable to stand in the rising water. He had nowhere to go. Aaryn calmly navigated us so that I could get onto the rock. There needs to be a new word to describe the look on Sage’s face when he realized we were there for him. The feeling it invoked in me was priceless. This old boy knew he was getting out of the water and going home!
At this point the water was almost up to his chin — just minutes later would have been too late. I managed with some effort to haul all 120 pounds of Sages soaking wet body out of the water and up onto the rocks.
It seemed Sage had slipped down a deceptively steep rock path down the water and just couldn’t get up. His paws were torn up and the quicks of his nails were all bleeding from trying to get out. I couldn’t feel any broken bones, but Sage had nothing left to give. We don’t think he could have been there the whole time with the tide washing up and down, but he could have been there for as long as 10 hours.
It became clear there was no way I could lift Sage into the canoe, so I called to Parker. I asked him if there were any kayaks around and he answered yes. If I could get a kayak up on the rocks next to where I had Sage sitting, I could get him onto it and we could tow him to a safe place to unload him. Knox took off in the canoe to bring one back that we had seen on a nearby beach.
I sat with Sage trying to warm him up, telling him he was going home. Parker and Albrecht were going to get cars and get to the beach where we could load and unload. In that moment I realized exactly what Sage had been going through. It was so cold, so quiet and I felt so alone. I needed to stay clear and focused, so I called McCoy while I swaddled Sage on the rocks; I needed to talk out the moment with someone. McCoy knew the situation, the dog, knows me, and even in her busy day she stopped to be there, to help me hold the calm that Sage needed so we could get him out of there. She just listened and it was everything I needed in that moment to keep me going.
By now Knox had brought back a sit-on-top kayak from the beach we had passed. I mentally thanked the owner, whoever it was. I was able to get the kayak right up next to Sage and drag him onto it. Now we just had to figure out how to keep everyone safe. We couldn’t tow him behind us, if he fell off or got spooked in the deep water there would be no getting him out, so we couldn’t risk that. The decision was made to tow Sage on the kayak next to the canoe. I would hold him and the kayak next to us as Knox paddled. I was aware that Knox was injured in a way that makes rowing uncomfortable and he yet rowed us all with no complaints.
At the beach, we had only a small hill and short walk to Albrecht’s van but we were definitely going to have to carry Sage there. We made a stretcher out of a blanket I had brought. I slid Sage off the kayak and onto the blanket. I had noticed someone working on a nearby house and I saw that an extra set of hands at this point would be helpful. Enter Carl Petersen. I had Parker ask him if he could give a hand and he came straight down. 10 minutes later, Sage was in the van and on his way home! It was an uncountable number of minor miracles that cleared the path for Sage’s rescue.
Sage spent a warm night at home with his pack and was taken off to the vet the following morning for assessment. They triaged his wounds, gave him oxygen, IV fluids and had imaging done. Miraculously, he had no broken bones. It was touch and go but he pulled through. The following morning Sage came home from the vet and as I sit here typing, he is resting easy with his pack of dog pals. He is still an old guy with a lot of health issues but he is home, he is loved and he is safe.
There are so many questions that can’t be answered. This whole thing was such a freak incident for Sage. We can wonder and guess and assume but we can never know, and that’s fine, because what we do know is pretty amazing. We know we can call on each other. We know that a dog can bring a community together. We know more about how to search and rescue; we know the tools we need and that people are willing. We know with one post the energy of dog loving islanders was focused on Sage for five days and I have no doubt that whatever you believe, that energy kept him safe and kept people going. So when you wonder why do we live way out here, this is why.