Pictured above: Sig Olson (right) with his son, Jeremy
Monday, November 14, 2012, dawned crisp and freezing cold in the city of Dryden, Ont. In the Olson home, perched on the picturesque shores of Wabigoon Lake, Sun Life Financial advisor Sig Olson was getting dressed for work while his wife, Judy, was in the kitchen waiting for him. Jeremy, their 18-year-old son, was still in bed, but would be up soon to get ready for school. None of them had any clue that this seemingly ordinary morning was about to turn into a race against time to save a life.
Earlier in the morning, Judy commented that their 85-year-old neighbour, Peter Wolff, was out walking on the ice. When she looked out the kitchen window at about 8:00 a.m., she was shocked by what she saw. “Peter’s fallen through the ice!” she screamed, startling Jeremy awake. The Olson family has a long history with their neighbour. Jeremy has known Peter his entire life and grew up with his grandchildren. A real outdoor spirit, Peter regularly ventured out on frozen Wabigoon Lake every winter to snowshoe, cross-country ski and walk his dog.
Ice had only recently formed on Wabigoon Lake; Peter, out walking his dog, had crossed treacherously weak ice. Upon seeing his neighbour’s plight, Sig’s first thought was, “Will we be able to get to Peter in time?” Dressed in nothing but a coat, jeans and running shoes, Jeremy rushed outside with his mother to pull out the canoe and rope they stored in the bush, while Sig quickly changed back out of his business suit and into snow pants and boots and ran outside.
Walking as carefully and quickly as they could, Sig and Jeremy inched the canoe across the ice towards Peter; they can’t be sure, but they think it took about 10 minutes. “By the time we got to him,” says Sig, “Peter had managed to pull himself out back onto the ice, but he was just standing beside the hole. I think he was in a state of shock and he was so cold he could hardly move.”
When father and son reached Peter, the elderly man managed to maneuver himself into the canoe — when, suddenly, the ice broke around the canoe, plunging both Sig and Jeremy into the freezing depths. “The initial shock of the cold water got the adrenaline going,” Jeremy recalls. “Our clothes filled with water and made us heavier, making it difficult to get out.” Sig, in particular, really struggled; he had recently fallen off a ladder and torn his rotator cuff.
After several attempts, Jeremy managed to pull himself onto solid ice, losing one shoe in the process. Still in the water, Sig was trying to push the canoe, with Peter in it, back on top of the ice. With Jeremy’s help they were finally able to get it onto a more solid patch. Jeremy tossed a rope to his dad and dragged him out of the water. Then, father and son made slow but steady progress on foot back to the shore, as Sig led from the bow and Jeremy pushed from the stern.
“By the time we got back to shore, our clothes were frozen to us,” recounts Sig. Jeremy adds, “My right shoe was missing and I was covered in cuts, and bleeding from kicking chunks of ice while trying to get out of the water. Nothing sounded better than a hot bath.”
But first they’d have to get Peter home. “Peter could hardly walk and once we helped him out of the canoe, he fell forward to the ground,” recalls Sig. “We picked him up and took him back to his house to warm up.” Although Jeremy stayed home from school, Sig had a hot shower and headed off to work — like it was any other day.
In the aftermath of this daring rescue, the Olsons and Peter are closer than ever. Peter put an ad in the local paper thanking them for their heroism and, unknown to Sig and Jeremy, went to the local MP’s office to recommend them for a Medal of Bravery.
At a formal ceremony at Rideau Hall, on March 6, 2015, Sig and Jeremy were each recognized for their heroism with a Medal of Bravery by His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada. Father and son accepted this high honour surrounded by family and friends, as well as Senator Lynn Bayak. The Medal of Bravery is the third-highest award for bravery in Canada. It is awarded to individuals who have performed acts of bravery in hazardous circumstances.
When asked how they felt when they learned they were receiving this honour, Sig says, “It was a bit of a surprise!” Adds Jeremy, “It happened two years ago, so I didn’t think something like this would come of it. It was pretty cool.”
Shortly afterward, Sig and Jeremy were also honoured with a Humanity medal by the Ontario government.
Looking back at that November day, were they ever worried for their own safety? Says Jeremy: “Yes; falling into the water just kept making the hole bigger. And under the ice, there was a bit of a current.”
So, what gave them the courage to risk their lives to rescue their neighbour? “We knew Peter wouldn’t be able to help himself too much,” says Sig. “He’s 85; he moves slower. We had to do something!” Jeremy explains that there wasn’t any time to think: “We just did it. All we could worry about was Peter.” And father and son agree: Helping someone in need was simply the right thing to do.