Few things in my childhood were more fun than getting together with my cousins from Canada. One summer break, when I was about eight years old, we traveled to the “Great White North” to visit my relatives. We decided to take a day hike to Jasper National Park in Alberta to see the glaciers.
Our older cousins and my brother Chris and I took off ahead of our parents along a snow-packed trail up into the mountains. We ran a good mile or two up the path. An iced-over lake was to the right of the path.
We stopped for a breather and scanned the frozen surface next to us. “I want to go ice skating,” one cousin said.
“Me too,” said another. “But the ice might crack,” my brother said. “How do you know it can hold you?”
“We’ll just have to test it, that’s all,” someone else reasoned. “Who’s the smallest one here?” I volunteered. I was the smallest one, so who else should test the ice, but me? Not only was I a bit of a show-off, I was also the youngest in the group and felt the constant need to be accepted.
As my cousins and big brother cheered me on, I slid one tentative foot onto the ice. It was holding. I slid my foot out a bit farther and stepped off the snowy pathway onto the ice. I inched out still farther, waved, and yelled, “Come on, you guys, it’s—” Then I screamed as I broke through the cracking ice into freezing water.
A thousand needles seemed to pierce my skin through my clothing as I sank into the glacial runoff. I was already in water too deep for me to touch bottom. My drenched clothes clung to me, weighing me down. I hung onto the edge of the broken ice.
“Help!” I pleaded with my cousins and brother on shore. “Help me out!” “We can’t, Janice! We’ll fall through,” one cousin yelled back to me.
Even as scared as I was, I could see the terror in their eyes. I spun around in the water, clawing at the rough icy surface, trying to grab hold of anything to pull myself out. The ice kept breaking around me into a wider circle.
The more I tried to climb out, the bigger the hole of broken ice became. “Help! Somebody, help!” I screamed, bitterly cold and desperate. “I can’t hold on much longer!”
No adults were around. My cousins and brother wouldn’t leave me but they couldn’t help me either. Just then, a man wearing running shorts and a tank top came around the corner. He must really be cold with no long pants on, I thought.
The man ran to where my cousins and brother stood. He didn’t stop, but he slowed down and walked out onto the ice. He leaned over and grabbed me under the arms.
I stared, unable to believe he was standing on the ice. He dragged me out of the broken hole and back to the pathway. He stood me on my feet. “Are you all right?” he asked. Despite being soaked and totally chilled, I nodded. He backed up a few steps.
I was soaked and began shivering and shaking uncontrollably. My brother and cousins sprang into action, huddled around me and offered me their clothes. The runner sternly looked from one child to another. “Don’t go out there again.” All of us shook our heads. “I won’t ever do that again,” I said.” I promise.” The others also assured the man that they wouldn’t go out on the ice.
The runner smiled, turned, and took off running up the snowy path. He left me standing with the others, dripping wet, in shock, but alive. We all stared after the runner in disbelief. Then reality hit us.
“He walked on the ice,” my brother said. “He . . . he didn’t break through the ice,” my cousin said. “How did he walk out there?” another cousin asked. “Janice broke through and she’s the smallest.”
They tried to figure it out but I stopped them with my frantic plea. “I’m freezing to death!” My wet clothes clung to me and were so heavy I had trouble walking. The rough, frozen denim scratched my legs like a million bee stings as I shuffled back to the path and toward my parents. Painful knots in my muscles took over as I put one foot in front of the other.
They temporarily forgot about the runner and helped me get back to our family. I reached my parents with crunchy, frozen hair. My clothes had rubbed my skin raw while I walked. Dad grabbed my icy hand in his and led me back to the car to find dry clothes. I didn’t have to stick around for the scolding the mothers gave my brother and cousins.
“Dad,” I said, through chattering teeth, “know what?”
“What, Janice?” he said hurriedly, trying to get me to warmth and safety.
“A man saved me,” I said.
My dad kept moving me along at a good clip. I wanted him to carry me because I was so tired and cold, but he forced me to walk to keep me warm. “Yes,” I continued. “A man in running shorts sa-sa-sa-saved me.” My teeth chattered.
“A man in running shorts? Are you sure?”
“He walked right out on the ice and pu-pu-pulled me out.”
“But you broke through,” my dad said, staring at me.
“Yes, kinda crazy, huh?”
I don’t remember much else about that day except that the kids weren’t allowed to run ahead anymore. We eventually saw the source of the glacier we were looking for, but I was to stay only for a few minutes after my long hike.
The name of the glacier we visited in Jasper National Park is called the Angel Glacier. I’ll never forget that adventure.