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Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Shocked, Awed and Blessed

Veronica with Bragi and Asha the day after

An idyllic area of Heggemoen, nothing like where the incident occurred.

I’m stumbling through this week in a bit of shock and awe… Veronica almost drowned on Sunday during a mishap at the wilderness area called Heggemoen where we take our dogs each weekend. There’s a lake, Vatnvatnet, measuring about 23 square kilometers and a mountainous area four or five times larger. It’s a place where you are allowed to let dogs run loose, and I guess that’s what started it all. Loose dogs can get lost, and you end up going after them.

The short of it is that I led us into a new and unfamiliar territory and didn’t pay attention to the terrain. Suddenly there was a steep cliff, very slippery because a creek ran down it. We first noticed it when Asha the big dog started sliding down, but he managed to turn and scrambled up. Meanwhile, the little dog Bragi went flying after him and couldn’t stop. He slid down on his rump, claws scraping the granite, like a cartoon dog trying to brake, and disappeared over the edge. It was a drop of about twenty feet to the water. We managed to get down to the water at the far end of the cliff and could see him about twenty yards away scrambling to stay onto the rock, but falling into the lake over and over. There was no shore, just sheer rock face straight into the water. It seemed like the only thing to do was go after him. Veronica took off her coat and boots and went into the water between the boulders on the shore. She had my hiking poles, but they immediately broke on the rocks, so she started swimming. The water was choppy black waves, a strong wind was blowing, and by the time she got to the dog, it became clear she would not be able to grab or lean on the rock or even touch it for more than a second before the waves propelled her away. When she got close to the dog he jumped onto her, making her go under water. That happened twice. I could see she was struggling and would be unable to swim back to me or stay where she was or even keep her head above the rough water. So I called emergency services, shouting into the phone that she was drowning and shouting at her to go to the rock while watching her disappear from sight into the water beyond the cliff.

The dispatcher kept asking where I was, which was impossible to say. I had no landmarks, only the sun to my right, a couple tiny cabins miles away across the lake, and a rough idea how far we might be from the road. The ambulance was dispatched from town, would reach here in half an hour, but wouldn’t know where to find us. The ambulance helicopter that could have scanned the shoreline was out on another rescue mission. The dispatcher told me to climb back up the cliff and keep an eye on Veronica from above. I couldn’t see her. They told me to look out for a boat that had been dispatched. I could see for miles, and there was no boat. I wondered why they couldn’t just read my GPS location on my phone, but that must be only in movies. I paced the top of the cliff, shouting my lack of directions into the phone, shouting into the air for Veronica. Once I heard her shout back, then nothing. It was god awful.

Then, like an apparition, two women with dogs appeared on the horizon behind me. They watched me screaming and gesticulating a while before they realized I wasn’t just some goofball and they ran over, tied up their dogs, and one took off to the road to flag down the ambulance while the other rolled up her sleeves and said she was going in the lake. I told her she mustn’t, which she soon saw for herself when she got down to the area where Veronica had left her boots. It was the only place to approach the water, but it got you nowhere. Though the woman seemed trained in rescue all she could do was stand on a boulder shouting into her phone like I was standing on the cliff shouting into mine, answering the dispatcher who wanted to know what color clothes Veronica had on and intermittently yelling at Asha to keep away from the cliff.

I heard sirens and what seemed like a long while later the woman came leading two paramedics carrying bags of equipment out of the woods, followed by two police officers carrying a contraption for underwater sonar. None of the police or EMTs could locate Veronica or get down the cliff or approach the water better than I could. It was such an impossible area. For about ten minutes everyone bustled about like crazed ants around me as I stood holding the dog with one hand, my phone in the other and screaming her name into the wind, wondering if I’d be sending out a wedding or death announcement.

Then kayakers were paddling across the lake toward us shouting, Is everything okay? I screamed No! at them as a man in a diving suit carrying flippers emerged from the woods behind me. He made his barefooted way gingerly over heather-coated moraines and gnarled birch, but before he could act, which I thought must be to hurl himself off the cliff to the forty meter depth, a little motorboat chugged up. It was the dispatched off-duty fireman who had been on call in his cabin. God only knows how far he had traveled. His boat knocked against the cliff and found Veronica clinging to a small crack in the rock face. She described later that just as she realized she could neither rescue the dog nor swim back to me nor even stay above water she noticed in the distance a small crevice in the rock, as if the mountainside had reached out a finger in the otherwise sheer rock that jetted smooth as ice straight into the water as far as she could see in either direction. It took all her strength, plus strength she didn’t know she had, to swim near enough to crawl her fingers up to the crevice and try to cram them inside so it might hold her if she blacked out. She envisioned herself as a limpet holding onto the rock, and the rock holding onto her. There she waited, half conscious, half drowned, but oddly alert, going over in her head that it was good she got the deck painted that morning and figuring that her body was so cold she would drown slowly and thus be able to be revived.

That was how the hero in the boat found her. She had blacked out in moments, not noticed the kayakers, but the boat hitting against the cliff startled her alert. She said the man was the epitome of competence, calm and strength as he told her how she would have to hold the rock with one hand and turn and get her arm over the edge of the boat and climb in. She did that, lay down on her back in the bottom of the boat and then he said, “And now we’ll go and get your dog.” The little dog Bragi was sitting rather calmly on a bare patch of rock the size of two paws. Being a poodle he could have balanced on a pinhead once he stopped struggling and slipping into the water. Chances are that even though he’d never been in water before he might have figured how to swim around the outcropping that kept him from seeing us at the water’s edge, but we didn’t think so at the time. There are probably more dog owners that nearly or actually drown than dogs in situations like this. But you don’t think, you just act when the little creature is struggling and it seems like the only thing you can do.

Veronica had been in 10 C degrees water for about forty minutes. It took them another twenty minutes to get her up the cliff and back to the ambulance at the road. Her body temp was 32 degrees Celsius. At thirty-one degrees she would have succumbed to hypothermia and lost consciousness altogether. Within an hour she was in the ER being watched for possible heart failure due to the stress on her body. Twenty hours later her body temperature had normalized to 37.2 C. Luckily she was in good cardiovascular shape from hiking every day on the hillside near our house and exercising, so it was perfect that she was the one in the water and not me with my halting leg and passive-smoker’s lungs. I would have panicked in the water, and on land she might have hesitated a crucial minute or two to call for help. So we were perfectly placed in the right roles to survive this.

I got help from the dog women to get back to my car with my two dogs, the little one wrapped in Veronica’s discarded coat and the big one enjoying all the fuss and hoping it meant we could continue our romp through the wilderness. I drove home, watching the ambulance gain distance as it sped ahead of me with blue lights and sirens, then fed the dogs, called Kazi and Bia and Veronica’s brother and parents before going to the hospital. I realized I was in shock when standing by the ambulance at Heggemoen the police officer had told me to be sure to notify family and I realized I had not thought to do so. Shock and awe. Once again, like with my leg accident, we’re reeling with amazement at how lucky we were, how worse it could have turned out, and how much we admire and owe the health care workers who spend their lives, risk their lives, to help us when we’re most helpless. They seem to be true angels if there ever were angels.

Veronica is out of the hospital now and out of danger of a heart attack, though going for another EKG and blood test tomorrow. Much ado but no major harm, except I get some kind of PTS flashbacks and catatonic moments of existential numbness and difficulty sleeping. I think I had the worst psychological toll, as she always knew that both she and I were alive, but I just kept seeing a surface of water into which she had disappeared. The reality of the situation is that every couple months someone dies in the Norwegian outdoors, not just tourists but local people who like us think they know where they are and what they’re doing, but are inattentive or careless or over-confident for just a moment. Living here is a bit of a high-risk sport. The landscape demands utter attention and respect, and in return it houses us within its fierce beauty, but we must remember it isn’t tamed.

On Tuesday we went back out to Heggemoen. We didn’t return to that same spot but hiked to some of our regular territory. That’s her in the photo getting back on the horse so to speak. The lake clapped its happy black waves at us in recognition. Soon we’ll go back to that same spot on the cliff, without the dogs, just to see it, be there, pay homage and walk away. I’ve been studying terrain maps and aerial photos, a bit mesmerized by the place. Luckily they let me off work this week, giving me time to get my head back on straight, sort myself out, and get back to routine.

While playing limpet and in a moment of hyper-adrenaline, Veronica had started reciting Shakespearean sonnets she used to memorize while on her hikes. So it’s appropriate to let the Bard have the last word on the matter: All truly is well that ends well!

4 comments on “Shocked, Awed and Blessed

  1. Veronica Preiss

    One of the sonnets, I think the last one, was

    The little love god, lying once asleep
    Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand
    While many nymphs that vowed chaste life to keep
    Came flitting by, whilst in her maiden hand the fairest votary
    Took up that fire which many legions of true hearts had warmed
    And so the general of hot desire was by a virgin hand disarmed.
    This brand she quenched in cool well by
    Which from love’s fire took heat perpetual
    Making a bath and healthful remedy
    For men diseased, but I, my mistress’ churl came there for cure and this by that I prove:
    Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.
    (apologies for any mistakes)

    • Rasma Haidri

      Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love… proven by you my dear.

  2. Marit Bødtker

    Wow! What an amazing story
    Rasma! I have been Heggemoen sveral tiles with my brother and his dog. I will show him this. You write extremely well, what a drama! Loae down the app 113, your position will always show and you can tell the resquers. Send my greetings to the brave woman.

  3. Rasma Haidri

    Thanks for the comment, Marit, and I will. Brave is right! Heggemoen is a beautiful and special place, no less so now. You know, I have that app, but didn’t use it! 😱 But thanks to the women with the dogs the ambulance found us just as quickly. They were real heroes.

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