Holding out hope: Grass Valley man learned lesson when dog slipped into Yuba River rapids
It had already been a rough day for Mark Brooks.
He was about to leave Grass Valley for Colorado, where he would help his best friend check in to hospice due to cancer. Before hitting the road, he thought a quick trip to the Yuba River with his German Shepherd/Lab mix Polly would clear his head.
Eight years ago, Brooks took Polly in as a puppy after she’d been hit by a motorcycle. She was born on Easter, and they formed an inseparable bond. Polly went everywhere with Brooks, because she was so well behaved and mild-mannered. There were never problems with people or other dogs.
After spending too much time in the car, Polly was excited to be out on the trail as they headed up toward Hoyt’s Crossing. It was late April of this year, and the water was running high and fast. Polly was tugging at her leash, and Brooks did something he said he’ll forever regret. He leaned down and unhooked the leash.
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Polly took off like a flash down the hill toward the river and ran onto a steep rock.
“Then, she just slipped in,” said Brooks. “She turned around and looked at me and started spinning around and around. Then I lost sight of her.”
Brooks tore down the embankment toward the river, determined to jump in after Polly, but two hikers stopped him, insisting it was too dangerous. He ran back up the hill and started running down the trail toward the Highway 49 Bridge.
“And that was the last time I saw her — from up on the trail,” he said. “I saw her with her head up and then she disappeared around a corner.”
Brooks called the sheriff’s department and Nevada County Consolidated Fire, who sent a search party down by Jones Bar to no avail. He drove back and forth to Bridgeport. Exhausted and in shock, he sat in his car by the river as it got dark. But he was determined not to quit. At around 10 p.m. he got a flashlight out of his trunk and scrambled down to the river’s bank in search of Polly.
“I hacked my way through thicket and poison oak — I got spider bites,” he said. “There weren’t really any trails, so I was rock climbing around bends. I hadn’t eaten. I took three naps.”
Finally, feeling defeated and exhausted, Brooks knew he had to give up. But he didn’t know where he was. He scrambled straight up a sheer embankment and discovered a farmhouse at the top. By the end of his search, he discovered he had been making his way along the river for 16 hours and had only covered three miles.
“The woman who owned the farm couldn’t believe it,” said Brooks. “She said, ‘How did you climb up that? No one does that and I’ve lived here for 11 years.’ But it was the only way I could get out of there.”
The next day, social media blew up with posts about Polly, including what she looked like and where she had fallen in. She had been microchipped, but nothing turned up.
“It was like an explosion of people responding,” said Brooks. “It was overwhelming and heart-warming. But I never saw Polly again.”
While Brooks holds out hope that Polly might somehow still be out there, less than five weeks later he now views his experience as a cautionary tale to others.
“It’s totally my fault — I let her off the leash,” he said. “There was a big sign right in front me of that said, ‘Dogs must remain on a leash.’”
Capt. Kevin Menet of Nevada County Consolidated Fire said he remembers that call, even though he wasn’t part of the search team. Sadly, it’s just one of many he knows are coming this year now that the water is high, cold and currently running at 2,700 cubic feet per second.
“The river will be cold and fast much longer this season because of the snow pack,” he said. “We’re urging people not to go in and to keep your dogs leashed. Never try to jump in to save an animal because you could become a second victim. And remember — there’s no cell service out there, so you’re on your own. Pay attention on the trail and stay hydrated. Recently we’ve had a few people get tired and fall off of banks where the trail has washed away.”
When a man slipped off a Yuba River embankment a few weeks back, his friends weren’t able to tell rescue personnel exactly where the victim was, said Menet. They estimated two miles in, but it was actually just one. Keep your bearings, notice geographic landmarks and monitor the weather, he said.
Brooks says he continues to call park rangers daily to ask if they’ve found any remains. He said rangers often scan carcasses in case they contain microchips. But so far, no sign of Polly.
“Now I want to go up to other people at the river and tell them to keep their dog on a leash,” said Brooks. “I tell them that losing Polly happened in a heartbeat. She was my whole world. She taught me about unconditional love, and how to be responsible. The moral of the story is, ‘Don’t take your dog off the leash and become complacent.’ I did, and my heart is broken. I can never get that moment back.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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