Cowichan SAR recovery mission ends in heartbreak for dog owner

Frankie. (Submitted)
Nikki Bigger with Frankie. (submitted)
Nikki Bigger with Frankie. (submitted)
The Cowichan Search and Rescue team prepares to head down the cliff face at Stoney Hill to try to find dog Frankie. (Warren Goulding/Citizen)
Nikki Bigger, right, Marigold Arbic, left, and Tash Pegg wait for news on Frankie Wednesday afternoon. (Warren Goulding/Citizen)

Nikki Bigger will leave the Cowichan Valley with a broken heart and without her beloved toy Australian shepherd.

But she will also leave with the memory of how a courageous group of volunteers and two young women came to her aid under tragic circumstances.

The drama unfolded Wednesday afternoon atop Stoney Hill Regional Park when Bigger and another woman were enjoying a hike and taking in the scenery.

“One minute we were taking pictures of our dogs, then she threw a stick over the cliff,” Bigger explained, as her tears flowed.

Instinctively, the one-year-old Australian Shepherd, named Frankie, took off in pursuit of the stick and fell over the edge.

“It is so messed up. My best friend’s life was taken by someone who did something stupid,” Bigger said.

Bigger called 911 and within minutes volunteers from Maple Bay Fire department arrived on the scene. They quickly realized there was nothing they could do, given the steep cliff that overlooks Sansum Narrows, and called Cowichan Search and Rescue.

As she sat in the van that is home for herself, her boyfriend and Frankie, Bigger watched as SAR personnel and equipment gathered on Stoney Hill Road preparing to head to the search site. More than 20 SAR members joined in the recovery effort.

“Do they always do this?” Bigger asked. “This is incredible.”

Assured that this was a typical response by Cowichan SAR, a non-profit organization that is highly trained and highly motivated, Bigger joined the team as they headed back up Stoney Hill.

By 4 p.m., two members of the rope rescue team had made their way to the bottom of the cliff and began looking for the dog.

“Cliff rescues are not rare,” SAR team leader Jamie Tudway-Cains commented. “But dog rescues are.”

Tudway-Cains says in situations like the Stoney Mountain response it’s important to be proactive.

“We don’t want to have to rescue the owner trying to get to the dog,” he said.

As she watched the recovery effort, Bigger was joined by two women who had hiked the 3.2 kilometre loop trail and were surprised to see the SAR team and the distraught dog owner.

Marigold Arbic and Tash Pegg sat with Bigger for more than an hour, consoling her and offering to help her get through the sad experience.

“We’re here for you, whatever we can do,” Arbic assured her, as news came that the dog had been found and would be brought up to the top of the mountain.

Tudway-Cains broke the news to Bigger who already knew the dog had little chance of surviving the fall.

“We have 300 feet of rope and we used all but 10 feet of it,” Tudway-Cains said, noting the drop was almost 290 feet.

Cowichan SAR often trains at the site because of its challenges and the dangers that exist at that location and others on Stoney Hill.

Frankie had become something of a celebrity in his short life. With the help of his owners, Frankie had garnered 24,500 followers on Instagram through letsgo_frankie.

He reported regularly on his travels with Bigger and her boyfriend as they made their way west from Ontario to Canmore, Alberta and on to Vancouver Island in their customized van.

On Aug. 28, Frankie posted a picture and this message: “So many more adventures to come living in this van and roaring around North America.”

The plan was to carry on to California and spend the winter in Arizona once Bigger’s boyfriend returned to B.C. from a photo assignment in Eastern Canada.

Bigger, also a photographer, posted a heartbreaking message on Instagram Thursday morning.

“This is really hard for me. But I know you’re all wondering what happened yesterday and a lot of people care about him.

“My little hairy, best friend is no longer with us. Thank you for all your support. We’ll keep him in our hearts.”

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