Marley in the Mountain

September 2020

Hiking is a part of life for many Thunder Bay families, and with the Nor’wester Mountains an integral part of our local landscape, mountain hikes are a natural part of summer enjoyment. For the Klassen family, one such hike became a source of triumph out of tragedy this summer, as a bold rescue mission for an imperiled dog took place.

Marley is an energetic Lab/Samoyed mix, with bright eyes and a laughing tongue. She is also an avid hiker and will always accompany her family on their outings, no matter where or when. So, when Mikayla Klassen and friend Erika Puiras decided to head up to Ruby Lake, Nipigon, Marley was the perfect companion. Marley is an independent hiker, tireless and adept and completely at home in the bush, with her red bear-bell collar letting her family know she’s near. It was a warm day in June, and the girls paused at an overlook to take in the breathtaking clifftop views. It was then that they heard the bell, and the thump of a 60 lb dog taking a fall.

It was noon when Marley disappeared.

The girls could hear the bear bell from inside the rock, and after a frantic search, they discovered a crevasse almost completely hidden by pine boughs and moss. It was only 2’ wide by 8’ long, but they had no idea how deep. Even flashlights couldn’t penetrate the blackness. They could hear Marley, and the ringing of the bell meant she was alive and moving. Still, without ropes, harness, or climbing gear, there was no way to reach her.

“My thought was, okay, so Marley’s down there,” says Mikayla. “We can hear her, but we can’t get down there. We’re gonna need some help, so I immediately called my dad to let him know the situation, that we’re okay, we’re fine, but Marley’s stuck in a hole.”

By 2:00pm, Mikayla’s dad, Steve, had arranged for an experienced climbing team to meet them there, but it’s a 90 minute drive from Thunder Bay to Ruby Lake. When Steve arrived with daughter Jasmine, friend Teresa Harris, her son Jesse Bohler and his girlfriend Mimi My-Thanh, it was 4:00 pm and Marley had been in the crevasse for over 4 hours. They immediately got to work, setting up an anchor point and prepping Jesse for the descent. He was able to go down 15’ before realizing that it was a highly dangerous situation, and that they’d need a special tool called an ascender. He emerged from the darkness at 5:00pm, with a better understanding of crevasse, but a sense of despair for the dog caught in its narrow depths.

While Mikayla and Erika used their voices to help Marley stay calm, Teresa had been calling members of the caving/rock climbing community. They needed specific equipment and few resources were available. A problem-solver, Steve exhausted many avenues of assistance like Search & Rescue, the non-emergency OPP, even plumbers for robotics and optical equipment. Anything that might help them assess the situation and facilitate a rescue. With no help or answers forthcoming, Steve began to think of the worst-case scenario, and was forced to call the vet for advice. All the while, they could hear Marley and knew she was waiting for them to bring her home.

Deep down, they all knew that, once darkness fell, it would only be a matter of time, and the team began to make plans to stay the night and spend those long agonizing hours with a good girl until she whined no more.

It was 7:30pm when Sandro Daniele showed up. A friend of Teresa’s, he is a telecommunications rigger who spends his days rigging steel and hoisting heavy equipment up and down high towers. He had heard of Marley’s plight and had come to offer his assistance. Not only was he experienced in climbing into and out of tight places, he also had extensive knowledge of safety and rescue, and came with the vital ascender. Both Teresa and Jesse knew that Sandro was Marley’s last, best hope, and even Mikayla willed herself to believe that rescue was possible. After analysing the crevasse and the area around it, Sandro began his descent. It was 8:15pm.

They soon lost sight of him in the darkness but could hear the scraping of boots and the clink of metal on rock. It was also not a straight descent, and Sandro needed to squeeze his way as the crevasse narrowed to 18” wide. It was impossible to see what waited him down below and getting stuck himself was a very real possibility. Sandro never told anyone of his claustrophobia, and that caving was a way for him to overcome his fear. As he descended in near blackness, blind and bound, he trusted in his gear and his team above and focused on the thought of the frightened dog below.

At 50 feet, he finally reached the bottom, but there, a new problem awaited. Marley was alive, uninjured, and happy to see him, but the crevasse wasn’t large enough for Sandro to turn, let alone pick and carry her up. He’d have to put her in a body harness, all from the side, almost one handed. The team sent down the harness, but it was a half-harness for the front part of her body, and she’d slide out of if the moment the rope drew taut. After a long, complicated process, Sandro was able to jury-rig a few climbing slings around her back legs to create a full body harness, (again, working one-sided and bent.) Soon, the team up top was able to begin the long, tortuous ordeal of pulling Marley out of the pit. By then, Sandro had been in the crevasse for almost an hour.

By 9:05pm, Marley the Mountain Dog was pulled up to safety, with only a scratch on her chin to show for her ordeal. She’d spent more than 9 hours in a pit and rallied a community for her rescue. For their part, the Klassen family couldn’t be more grateful to those who put it all ‘on the line’ to face their worst fears and help a beloved dog. No one gave up, not Mikayla and Steve, not Erika, Teresa and Jesse, not spelunker-extraordinaire Sandro, not even Marley herself. It’s said that dogs are man’s best friend, but it’s nice to know that sometimes, it goes both ways. From the valley of the shadow of death to a mountain top high, this is a cliff-hanger of a rescue story!

(Thanks to Erika Puiras and Laura Daniele for filling in many of the details!)

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

Visit her website at

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