Close call in river a reminder of water's power

By Jack Knox, Times Colonist November 19, 2009

Here's a sad, scary story that's worth telling if only so it doesn't happen to someone else.

Sisters Patti Walsh and Sandi Begg, both in their early 40s, were walking their dogs down the Galloping Goose Trail in Metchosin on Tuesday morning, right where the trail weaves around Bilston Creek.

The stream was swollen by rain but its surface was almost still.

As usual, Patti's golden retriever Sophie scrambled down the bank for a splash in what looked like an eddy -- and instantly vanished, sucked down by a powerful undertow. "Her head was up, and then it was gone," Sandi says.

Patti ran straight into the water, reached for her dog -- and vanished, too. "When Patti grabbed Sophie's collar, they both went under," says Sandi, shaken. "They disappeared in seconds. It happened so fast."

Sophie, a healthy, strong, eight-year-old dog who loved to swim, was swept into a submerged culvert. Patti, powerless against the undercurrent, found herself horizontal in the water, being pulled into the pipe, too. "All of a sudden, your feet are sucked out from under you," she recalled yesterday. "I thought, 'Why is my head under water and where am I going?' " Though she's a strong swimmer, there was nothing Patti could do. She thought she was going to die.

Sandi dropped the leash of her own dog, 12-week-old Zena, and ran to the spot where her sister had disappeared. "I looked and all I could see was the white of her jacket under water."

Holding a tree with her right hand, Sandi gripped Patti's coat with her left, started pulling. No good. Sandi is a Victoria cop, athletic, played basketball for UVic in the late 1980s, but still was no match for the power of the water.

"I just had the back of her jacket. I was screaming, 'Grab my arm!' " Sandi

couldn't figure out why Patti wouldn't reach for her.

Patti, with one hand on the culvert, heard the cries but, certain she was about to drown, was afraid to reach for Sandi lest she drag her sister to her death, too.

"I thought, 'She can't help me,' " Patti said.

Somehow, Sandi pulled Patti free of the current, then left her on the bank as she rushed off to look for Sophie. She found the dog's lifeless body floating on the other side of the culvert, and waded after it.

A man walked past, saw Patti drenched and in shock on the bank, and continued on without pausing to help.

A second, kinder man stopped. Worried for Sandi, he told her to release Sophie, that he would try to catch the dog. He missed and the body floated downstream. The sisters had to find it later. "As we were looking for Sophie there was a man throwing a ball into the water for his dog," Patti said. "It looked like there was no danger."

Which is the lesson to be learned here, that peril can exist where you least expect it, where it least appears to be. At some point on Tuesday, someone stuck a hand-lettered sign by the Happy Valley Road entrance to the trail: "Attention. Extreme water hazard. Do not let your dog off leash. Our condolences to the lady whose dog died today." It was a reminder that it could have happened to any of us who have serenely strolled a trail as our dogs -- or children -- explored the edges of apparently peaceful waters.

For the sisters, the experience was as traumatic as you would expect. Patti's 11-year-old daughter Allie will particularly feel the loss of her lifelong companion, Sophie.

Still, it could have been worse. "I thought Patti was going to die," Sandi says.

"You saved my life," Patti told her sister and best friend.

By yesterday, Bilston Creek had receded, the quartet of culverts that run diagonally under the trail exposed, their gaping mouths partly jammed by branches and other debris carried by the flood. The water didn't appear to be flowing that fast, but looks can be deceiving.

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