When the Cole family of Boulder Creek, California, went to bed one night in late February, everyone thought someone else had brought in Sage, the family's blind 12-year-old Labrador retriever. Out on her own, the beloved dog wandered away.
For days, the community rallied together to find the lost dog, hanging up fliers and organizing search parties into the neighboring Santa Cruz Mountains. The family even flew in a search and rescue dog from Los Angeles to help, but Sage had disappeared. There were worries of flash flooding and mountain lion activity and as each day passed, hope seemed to dim.
Probationary firefighter and paramedic Dan Estrada was acutely aware of his next door neighbors' pain. An animal lover with two rescue dogs, Estrada watched the search parties convene on his lawn and heard stories as his wife and kids joined in the hunt. But a hectic work schedule kept him from joining in. One of the searchers, a neighbor, nudged Estrada to get into nature.
"She told me one of the great ways to relieve stress is to go on hikes. She encouraged me to go and connect with the forest," Estrada tells MNN. So when a friend he hadn't seen in five years showed up to visit, the two of them decided to see the redwoods in the nearby forest.
Hiking near a stream, Estrada thought he saw a trash bag in the water, then realized it was Sage. He assumed it was her lifeless body, then his buddy, Vincent Lopez, saw the dog barely lift her head.
"I was super happy. I jumped into the creek and ran over to her and hugged," Estrada says.
Sage's head was resting in the creek, just above the water. She was so happy when she saw Estrada's two dogs, that she picked up her head and tried standing up. But the men realized she wouldn't be able to walk.
Taking Sage home
Being a true first responder, Estrada put the big dog over his shoulders in a fireman's carry as Lopez charted a path for them over the steep terrain. They called ahead so Sage's family and Estrada's family were waiting as they exited the woods. ("Everyone's there. Everyone's crying," Estrada recalls, with a laugh.) Meanwhile, word had spread on social media as the veterinary clinic had prepped for the pup's arrival and good wishes traveled all through the community. Despite her ordeal, Sage was weak, but in relatively good health with only a minor infection.
It was what neighbors needed, says Estrada, after battling a dark winter of storms and mudslides where the community had lost several members and many homes to weather.
"These last storms that hit California destroyed morale and Sage being rescued restored morale," Estrada says. "We all celebrated Sage together."
The Cole family offered Estrada and Lopez a significant reward, but they turned it down, asking that the money be paid forward to a charity instead. The two men are also leather workers by trade and have created seven leather leashes, one for each day Sage was missing and each inscribed with a word to celebrate her ordeal, like "perseverance" and "hope." They plan on auctioning the leashes to benefit a local animal shelter in Sage's name.
As Estrada now deals with attention that comes with being a hero, he shrugs off the good-natured ribbing from his firehouse pals and says he wants to make sure the message of the story is heard, "Never give up on hope and love never fails."