ARLINGTON — Ryan Neubauer has fishing in his DNA.
When the Stanwood man crosses a bridge, he can’t resist trying to sneak a peek at the water to check the conditions.
Snohomish County Undersheriff Tom Davis is thankful for the angler’s instinct.
On Feb. 17, it saved his life.
When Neubauer peered down at the Stillaguamish River that Sunday morning, he spotted Davis in the frigid water, struggling about 30 feet from the bank. He pulled a U-turn on Highway 530, flagged down another driver and told him to call 911, and scurried down to the shoreline.
By then, Davis was a mere five feet from the bank and Neubauer hauled him the rest of the way in.
“It was more his doing than mine,” Neubauer said.
Davis begs to differ.
By then, Davis had no feeling in his legs. His back ached and his feet were hopelessly numb.
His chilled body was spent and his mind was drifting out of consciousness.
The undersheriff remembers clinging to a stump, but has no recollection of the final moments when Neubauer reached out his hand and guided him ashore.
“I would have died in the shallow water and certainly would not have been able to walk out had I made it to shore,” Davis said. “Ryan saved my life that day, the life of a father and husband. He is a true hero.”
The pair reunited Tuesday when Neubauer was recognized in a brief ceremony at the sheriff’s office.
It has taken Davis time to process his thoughts and work through the emotions that accompany a brush with death. He needed Neubauer to help fill in some of the time and memory lost to hypothermia and exhaustion.
That morning, Davis went to the river to throw a stick for Sadie, his 9-year-old golden retriever.
Sadie got stuck in a small slow-swirling eddy less than 20 feet from shore. She was paddling in place and tiring fast.
Davis left his wallet, phone and keys on the shore and waded out. The water was less than waist deep.
Davis grabbed Sadie by the scruff of her neck and began walking her to shore, waiting for the point where the dog’s paws would touch the river bottom and she could walk out on her own.
Then Davis slipped on the rocky bottom. Rather than standing up first, he gave Sadie a shove to get her in front of him and she reached the shore.
But that push propelled him backward deep into the eddy. He no longer could stand. He kicked and paddled to break free, but soon realized it was a waste of precious energy.
“It was at that moment, I realized I was in serious trouble,” Davis said. “I realized if I continued treading water, I would get exhausted and drown.”
He yelled a few times, but knew it was unlikely anyone could hear him.
“There was nobody around,” he said. “I felt very alone.”
The current carried him downstream. As he neared a rough stretch of water, Davis turned onto his back with his feet facing forward. He lifted his head and let the river take him.
He was tossed about and pulled under several times. More than once, he fought his way to the surface.
The current swept him into the middle of the river. He tried to angle his way to the shore.
At one point, his foot got caught on a log beneath the water. As he pushed off with his other foot, he thought about his friend and colleague, sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom, as well as members of the department’s search and rescue and dive teams.
He couldn’t bear the thought of them searching for him.
“I’m not going to put Danny through that,” he told himself.
It gave Davis a sense of renewed strength to try to reach the bank.
Eventually, he latched onto a stump near the shore.
His feet now could touch the bottom. The problem was, he couldn’t feel them.
“I wanted so bad to lunge for the bank, but I didn’t trust myself,” he said. “I didn’t have an ounce of life left in me.”
The last thing he remembered was someone on the other side of the river yelling at him to hang on.
Neubauer got Davis onto the bank and made him lie on his side in case he had water in his lungs. He rubbed Davis’ back and assured him that medical help would get there soon.
Medics cut off the undersheriff’s clothes, monitored his vital signs and wrapped him in blankets.
At Cascade Valley Hospital in Arlington, doctors systematically raised his body temperature, which had plummeted to 94 degrees.
Davis, a father of two grown sons, counts his blessings.
“I know that nine times out of 10 this story does not turn out this way,” he said. “I am very fortunate.”
He’s also thankful that Neubauer, also a husband and father, did not have to risk his life to save him.
On some level, Neubauer, 39, considers himself lucky, too.
Davis has reached out to him. They have gone out to lunch and the undersheriff gave the outdoorsman a Cabela’s gift card.
They plan to get together again along the river some day, albeit under much less harrowing circumstances.
“I made a new fishing partner,” Neubauer said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.