Ranger calmly sat in his owner’s lap for almost a whole minute before he wiggled free. The yellow Labrador puppy braced to leap from the wheelchair his owner sat in, but a hand caught him and set him on the ground.
Ryan Neslund and his 10-week-old pup are still getting used to each other — after all, this was only their third week together.
“He’s already always trying to be close. Wherever I go he wants to go with,” Neslund said.
Ranger is Neslund’s second yellow Lab. His first, 8-year-old Balou, was lost in an accident on the ice of Lake Minnetonka this winter.
Neslund, 36, who has paraplegia, was riding along with Balou to his fish house on Lafayette Bay in late February when he noticed a bare spot in the otherwise snow-covered Lake Minnetonka ice.
“I thought, ‘That’s weird,’ but I kept driving, and before I even knew what was happening, I was in the water,” he said.
Ranger lounged in his small bed next to Neslund’s wheelchair as the property manager recalled the terrifying evening. He had managed to roll his window down before his pickup truck sank to the bottom of the lake. As the truck made it to the lake bottom, Neslund said he stretched himself upward for a last gulp of air trapped at the roof of the pickup. Then he pulled himself out the window and swam about 12 feet up to the surface.
He latched onto a shelf of ice and fiercely hung on for about 40 minutes, screaming for help.
Even as his own survival hung in the balance, he held out hope that someone would manage to save his dog.
“I just didn’t care about anything except getting my dog out of there,” he said. “I was dreaming. Nobody was going to dive down there.”
A resident having a cigarette on his porch heard Neslund’s cries and called for help.
Four Hennepin County sheriff’s deputies arrived and formed a human chain to rescue Neslund, who was carried to a fire truck where he waited for an ambulance.
Neslund’s mother, Suzanne Neslund, said she was at home in bed when a call came from North Memorial Medical Center notifying her that her son’s truck went through the ice but that he was OK. She rushed to the hospital, where some of Neslund’s family and friends had already gathered, and found her son.
“We both started crying right away because we were thinking of the dog,” she said.
Neslund, who became paralyzed below his chest after a 2011 motocross accident, left the hospital with only minor cuts and bruises and a small amount of frostbite in his fingers — an outcome his mother calls “a miracle from God.”
Retired St. Paul teacher Trish Moudry, a dog lover herself, read about Neslund’s rescue and was touched by his bravery. “Something just touched my heart,” she said.
Moudry and others chipped in to buy him a new puppy. Some research led her to the Winter Valley Labs kennel in Hatley, Wis.
Kennel staffer Elizabeth Thompson said the puppy would normally cost about $1,700 but after the breeder heard about Balou, she knocked about $700 off the price.
At first, Neslund planned to name the dog Balou, but decided he wanted a fresh start with his new dog, and is calling him Ranger after his favorite type of fishing boat.
“Really, I still haven’t 100 percent named him,” Neslund said. “He doesn’t come when I call him anyway.”
As Neslund nuzzled the dog, he added, “But he’s a good puppy, isn’t he?”
Anne Millerbernd is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.