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How Chicago Fire Department Divers Rescued Pepper The Dog From An Icy Lake Michigan

Pepper slipped and fell on rocks near Olive Park, getting trapped on an ice chunk that floated 500 feet into Lake Michigan. The rescue required two divers, a helicopter and about 40 first responders.

Chicago firefighters rescue Pepper, a 7-year-old Alaskan Klee Kai who got trapped on an icy chunk and nearly floated away in Lake Michigan Feb. 1, 2022.
Chicago Fire Department
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DOWNTOWN — A dog was rescued after he almost drifted away Monday on Lake Michigan. 

The dog, a 7-year-old Alaskan klee kai named Pepper, and his owner were taking a walk Tuesday morning near Olive Park north of Navy Pier when the pup ran off its leash, slipped on icy rocks and dropped about 2 feet onto ice sheets in frigid Lake Michigan. 

Pepper tried to climb back to its owner — but the ice cracked and the pooch began to float away.

The rescue had to happen quickly: With how chilly the lake is, hypothermia can set in “within a matter of minutes,” said Fire Deputy District Chief Jason Lach.

Firefighters were already at 31st Street Harbor for a routine morning practice of underwater ice dives. About 40 people responded to rescue Pepper in less than 10 minutes.

Credit: Chicago Fire Department
Chicago firefighters carry out a rescue mission to save Pepper the dog in Lake Michigan on Feb. 1, 2022.

Lach said standard dive rescue procedure calls for a truck full of divers, a police squad, a battalion chief, a field officer, a fire truck, a fire engine, two ambulances and a helicopter. 

Officials in the helicopter spotted Pepper on an ice chunk about 500 feet out. Lach said the dog was “very scared but friendly” and the owner was “very emotional and crying.” 

Veteran firefighters Chris Iverson and Emerson Branch dove in to bring back Pepper. 

The dive team tethered lines and laid out two 15-foot ladders to make a subtle decline above icy rocks so Iverson and Branch could safely slide into the water. 

Iverson, dressed in a full-body thermal suit, swam to Pepper in less than five minutes. Pepper got nervous and growled, then slipped off the ice chunk and into the cold water. 

But Pepper got up, and Iverson snapped a snare to capture the dog in a safety sling. Pepper snuggled up to his rescuer. 

Branch swam out with a Rapid Deployment Craft, which “looks like a big yellow banana,” Lach said. Branch helped Iverson and Pepper into the craft and guided them back toward shore. 

The entire rescue took about 15 minutes, Lach said. 

Pepper “looked like a blooming fur ball when we got him out of the water and unwrapped him. It was all fur, because it was so wet, just kind of in all directions,” Lach said. “It looked like more fur than dog.” 

Firefighters wrapped Pepper in a blanket and formed a hand-off chain over the rocks with police officers to reunite the dog with his owner. 

Credit: Chicago Police
Firefighters and police officers reunite Pepper and their owner, after the dog slipped into Lake Michigan Feb. 1, 2022.

Pepper was taken to Veterinary Emergency Group Hospital, where caretakers stabilized his condition.

Iverson’s and Branch’s suits were encased in ice, but the firefighters were unharmed. They declined to be interviewed, and Pepper’s owner did not respond to requests for comment.

Lach said his Air & Sea Rescue Unit received more than 60 calls last year for dive accidents, covering everything from Lake Mighican to “every pond, creek, river and stream, you name it” between Evanston and Indiana. They’ve pulled five animals out of the ice in the past three years, Lach said.

“Mostly dogs, a couple of coyotes, and I know of the one deer,” Lach said. “When we go to work, it’s an oddity.”

Divers train for the life-saving missions at least once a day year-round, Lach said. They started practicing subsurface dives — where they’re totally submerged under the ice — at 31st Street Harbor in January.

“Diving with the ice is extremely dangerous for us. Our equipment will freeze up in a matter of minutes,” Lach said. “But we get people that fall through the ice. They think ice is safe.” 

Lach said Chicago’s ice can crack and cause a soft spot with just the touch of a twig. Strong winds from the northeast can loosen ice build-up that’s “5 feet over the water’s edge, that you can’t see.” Lach said there was a woman who was stuck in ice for more than 15 minutes after she ran after her dog in the East Lagoon in 2020. 

Lach hopes Pepper can be a precautionary tale. 

“The dog was good, warmed up to its owner, and went on its merry way.” Lach said. “But stay off the ice. It’s never safe. … Step into a hole, and you’re out of sight.” 

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