Man lost on North Saskatchewan River rescuing stranger's dog defied convention, family says

Article content

Roberta White is the first to tell you, her husband did not live life like most people.

When she first met Rob, he was living in a warehouse, where he made the elaborate paper mâché sculptures that he crafted throughout his life.

“We didn’t even have a kitchen,” she said with a laugh. “It wasn’t like a nice loft warehouse. I mean, it was an industrial warehouse on the south side (of Edmonton).”

When it came time to get married, they “hijacked” another ceremony and gave their vows with red twist ties fashioned into rings.

Later on, when Rob needed a more conventional job, he became an industrial scaffolder, despite a fear of heights.

Rob taught his sons that fear was something to be conquered. “Whatever you’re scared of, go out and master it,” recalled Strider White, who is 24.

“Fear is a beacon, run as fast as you can towards it,” Alliance White, 22, recalled his father saying.

On Tuesday, Rob went after a stranger’s dog that escaped onto the dwindling ice of the North Saskatchewan River.

Advertisement

Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

He broke through, along with the dog, and ended up in the fast flowing, frigid water.

Rob White is missing and presumed dead after attempting to rescue a stranger’s dog from river ice on April 6, 2021.
Rob White is missing and presumed dead after attempting to rescue a stranger’s dog from river ice on April 6, 2021. Supplied

Fire crews fought to pull Rob from the water, but eventually lost sight of him. After hours combing the river, the search was called off. Rob was 55.

Since Rob’s disappearance, his family have been inundated with condolences, which always include a story about the unique ways Rob impacted people’s lives.

“He was extremely unconventional,” Roberta said. “He was very eccentric. He never held onto things — like if something was given to him, he would just give it away again.”

Rob was an artist, an entrepreneur, and a loving father and husband who often defied characterization.

Strider described him as “a gravity well of love.”

When Rob was eight years old, he was hit by a car. He suffered a head injury, and doctors told his mother he would likely struggle in school and otherwise live a diminished life.

Even in high school, he had trouble remembering the names of even close acquaintances. But in his early 20s, something clicked, and the Rob everyone knew was born.

“We joke around … ‘Oh, well, you know, a bunch of wires got knocked loose, and a bunch of them crossed in funny ways,’” said Strider. “And he turned into just an an outstanding intellect.”

Rob White, centre, is missing and presumed dead after attempting to rescue a stranger’s dog from river ice on April 6, 2021. He is seen in this mid-2000s photo with his sons Strider, left, and Alliance and wife Roberta.
Rob White, centre, is missing and presumed dead after attempting to rescue a stranger’s dog from river ice on April 6, 2021. He is seen in this mid-2000s photo with his sons Strider, left, and Alliance and wife Roberta.  Supplied

Rob and Roberta married in 1994, started a family and eventually settled in Edmonton’s Parkview neighbourhood, where they enthusiastically became part of Candy Cane Lane each Christmas season.

Chris Barrett met Rob in the mid-’80s, when Rob was trying to create a hot tub rental company (“It was totally ’80s,” Barrett remarked.) He was later Barrett’s best man, bandmate and an honorary uncle to his daughters.

Advertisement

Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

“He’s the guy that made the rest of us dads kind of jealous a little bit,” Barrett said. “He’s the guy you wanted to be — (he’d make you say) ‘why didn’t I think of that, why couldn’t I be that cool?’ But in a good way. He’d drag you in the right direction.”

Around the time of the incident, Rob was out of work because of the pandemic and taking the opportunity to upgrade his certifications.

He’d taken to walking in the river valley, often with the family dog Ace. The week before he fell in the river, Rob fell through a sheet of ice in Buena Vista Park, over a puddle that turned out to be a chest-deep sinkhole.

“He was head to toe wet, and he walked all the way home, and we were just like ‘my God Rob,’” Roberta said. “It could have turned into something way worse than that.”

“And then a week later … it’s almost like it was a precursor, or a premonition or something.”

Alliance was at home Tuesday. His dad left to walk Ace around noon. They said a quick goodbye. The hours ticked by and Rob didn’t return, but Alliance wasn’t overly concerned.

Eventually he tried his dad’s phone, which was dead.

Sometime after noon, while walking in Sir Wilfred Laurier Park, Rob saw a woman’s dog run onto the river ice. He tied Ace to a tree and went to help. The ice broke, and both Rob and the dog ended up in the river.

Edmonton fire rescue crews arrived at 12:45 p.m. and unloaded six rafts. Passersby followed along the banks, trying to keep Rob in sight. Fire crews climbed down to the banks trying to access the water. Police also arrived to assist, along with a STARS helicopter.

Advertisement

Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

Eventually, near an ice shelf near Groat Bridge, searchers lost sight of Rob. The search was called off around 4 p.m.

Crews rescued the dog just before 1 p.m.

STARS joined in a search with the fire department for Rob White who disappeared under the ice after helping a dog stranded on the ice of the North Saskatchewan River, on Tuesday, April 6, 2021.
STARS joined in a search with the fire department for Rob White who disappeared under the ice after helping a dog stranded on the ice of the North Saskatchewan River, on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. Photo by Ed Kaiser /Postmedia

Roberta and her sons were not surprised Rob reacted the way he did, and do not begrudge him for trying to save the dog.

They thanked the fire crews who fought to save him, and the police officers who informed them of what happened. A GoFundMe fundraiser has been set up to help the family cover expenses.

The three added that they hold no ill-will toward the person whose dog escaped onto the ice, who they have yet to speak with.

“If I could say one thing to them, though, it’s don’t feel bad,” Alliance said. “It’s OK. I would love to talk to them and just give them reassurance, just let them know it’s OK, it’s not their fault, dad would do that for (anybody).”

Roberta said they plan to hold a celebration of life when COVID restrictions permit. For now, she is focused on publishing Rob’s 808,000-word novel, which he’d been writing for as long as she’d known him.

jwakefield@postmedia.com

twitter.com/jonnywakefield

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Latest articles

Related articles