• Hunter Cresswell

‘She died a hero’

Wakefield community ‘nurturer’ died saving beloved dog


Ellen Drblik was more than a dog lover, she considered her dogs to be family. And when a family member’s life is in danger, there’s only one choice: risk your own life to save the one you love.


On New Year’s Eve, longtime Gatineau Hills resident Drblik left her Farrellton home to save one of her beloved Newfoundland dogs, Sailor, which had fallen through the ice on the Gatineau River nearby.


Ellen Drblik seen here in a photo from around 2000 with Diva, one of her many beloved Newfoundland dogs that she bred and raised at her Farrellton home near the Gatineau River. Photo courtesy Evan Johnston

In the dark of the night, she braved below-zero temperatures and 10 km/h winds, to crawl on the ice to get close enough to where her dog broke through. Lying on her stomach, the petite 60-year-old woman managed to bring her dog out of the frigid waters by using her scarf; she managed to save her dog, but hypothermia set in before she could leave the river and make her way home again.


“It’s pretty tragic, but she died a hero,” Drblik’s 25-year-old son, Evan Johnston, said. “And she died on her favourite place on earth — the river.”


Evan said his mother’s neighbour called him on the morning of Jan. 2 to ask about Ellen since they hadn’t heard from her since Dec. 31. When Evan and his younger brother Karl went to her home to check on her that day, they found Sailor outside who led them to their mother’s body on the riverside.


News of Drblik’s death sent shockwaves through the Gatineau Hills community, especially the arts, gardening and dog-lover communities, which she frequented or helped establish.

A Facebook group dedicated to her memory has been flooded with people’s messages of condolences, their expressions of shock at the sudden loss and the sharing of memories of her. People have also shared pictures of Newfoundland dogs they adopted from Drblik or plants in their garden, which she gave tips on growing.


“Our mom was a grand nurturer of life in its many forms,” Drblik’s 27-year-old son Nick Johnston said about how his mom raised himself and his two brothers, all those Newfie dogs, and the fruits, vegetables and herbs in her garden. “She had the biggest green thumb we’ve ever seen.”


“She took care of her Newfies, she took care of her plants, she took care of us and she took care of her community,” her 23-year-old son Karl Johnston said.


The three brothers – Karl and Evan live in Orleans and Nick lives in Montreal – have been busy processing the loss and taking care of the litter of 12 puppies that Drblik was in the process of adopting out when she died. The brothers have already found good homes for two of her adult dogs and are following through with the adoptions of the puppies as their mother would have wanted, but they are keeping the mother of the latest litter — a Newfoundland-Labrador retriever-Bernese mountain dog mix named Jenny.


“The first few days was all about making sure that all the dogs are okay,” Nick said.

“It helps us get through the grieving process,” Evan added.


They said that, despite the loss still being raw, they’ve been comforted seeing the messages of support and condolences from people over social media or who are reaching out in other ways.


“I would obviously do anything to experience her again and talk and be in her presence. The community posting all these things about her has really helped my brothers and I,” Nick said.


They added that they’ve enjoyed hearing stories about their mom from people they’ve never met before, including people who knew her from high school in Montreal.


“She has more high school friends than me — and I’m 27,” Nick joked.


The brothers said they will remember their mother as nurturing and supportive. They recalled her helping them get involved in the Wakefield skate park fundraising initiative to make sure that local youth had a say in the facility, going to all the Black Sheep concerts and making a point to meet the performers. Nick said that when he was in a band, she was his biggest fan.


Drblik’s friend Lisa Hopkins wrote to The Low Down that she still has wild roses in her Gatineau Hills garden that Drblik gave to her.


“The more I think about them, the more I think she was like a wild rose. Such beauty and so vivacious. It’s as if she’d bloom right before your eyes when she spoke of her sons, dogs, gardens and music,” Hopkins wrote.


“She was a light that shone so brightly. She loved big and was hurt easily, but didn’t let you know. She was smart as a whip and had a razor sharp wit, and she was funny and vivacious and so ‘out there’ but also, so alone,” Drblik’s friend Laura Lee Hogan wrote to The Low Down. “She loved her humans and her big sloppy dogs with deep compassion and a certain toughness that was always on her own terms. With her grown sons, she loved them tenaciously and deeply. Acknowledging their need for space and time, Karl, Nick and Evan were always her pride and joy and they filled her heart.”


Her sons said they want people to celebrate her life, not mourn her loss.


“She had a different outlook on life. She wouldn’t have wanted us wallowing; she would’ve wanted a celebration,” Evan said.


“We’re drinking her beer, swearing like her and picking up dog shit just like her all week,” Nick said, sounding almost comforted to be taking care of his mother’s business in her stead.


Nick, Evan and Karl are in the process of ensuring that whatever virtual celebration of life happens, it will be held so everyone who wants to attend will be able to. Details are likely to be announced on social media this week.


In lieu of flowers, the brothers asked that donations be made in their mother’s name to the Outaouais Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.


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