JEFFERSON — When Mike Soleska heard that one of the goats on the small island in the Rock River just south of the Jefferson dam had fallen into the water, he didn’t hesitate.
Soleska, who owns property along the river, had been bartending at Heron’s Landing when he got the news.
“I ran over to the garage next door and I grabbed my paddle. I keep a canoe on the riverbank downover there, so I ran over with my paddle and I got my canoe,” he explained. “It’s a lighter one that I could move. I got a yolk on there and I ran down to the dam and there were a couple fishermen who helped me get into the water and then I paddled over to them.”
Soleska paddled directly toward the struggling Nubian goat — named Elsa — who at that moment almost had made it back onto the rocky head of the island.
He paused, watching with the other two goats — Buddy and Anna, who remained near their friend throughout the entire ordeal — to see whether Elsa could make it on her own. Unfortunately, she slipped and fell back into the choppy, rushing water.
Carefully, Soleska maneuvered his canoe around the tip of the island until he could reach Elsa.
“They have a little plastic chain collars on, so I just grabbed her by the collar to keep her head out of the water and she kind of calmed down,” he said of Elsa. “… I think she knew I was helping her, so I just held her head out of the water and she just kind of floated as I tried to get her around the side of the island.”
Using his right hand, he guided Elsa while using his left hand to paddle them toward the east side of the island. Little by little, they made their way to the spot where land and water met.
“They built that island back in like the 1930s or whatever and the front of it has a stone wall on it,” Soleska said. “Right now, the water’s really, really high. In another month from now, you’ll see, like, 4 feet of that wall. What happened is, I got her to the back side where that wall stops to keep it from eroding away and she could just walk right up there.”
Those watching from the riverbanks anxiously waited as they lost sight of Elsa, who was hidden between the canoe and land, and then behind plant life on the island. Soleska pushed away from the island and, a few moments later, Elsa bounded out from behind some trees into view.
She was wet, but safe.
The three goats greeted each other, seeming joyous that they all had four legs planted firmly on solid ground once more.
Once Soleska got back on shore with the help of some people who were fishing on the west riverbank, he put his canoe away and went back to work.
When asked what prompted him to take action, he said he didn’t really know.
“An animal needed help, so I went and helped it,” Soleska said simply. “I guess it’s just who I am. … I’m the type of guy that picks up turtles on the side of the road and takes them somewhere.”
But, why are there goats on the island to begin with?
Last September, the city authorized the use of goats on the island to help reduce invasive plant species.
Goats typically eat 5 percent of their body weight daily and are notoriously easygoing about what’s on the menu. They eat lots of weeds and some of the most problematic invasive species, such as garlic mustard, wild parsnip and Queen Anne’s lace.
Using goats is a “natural” option that eliminates the need for costly and potentially hazardous pesticides and decreases energy costs compared to using mechanized vehicles.
The owners are Duane and Linda Hommen of Cambridge, and the goatkeepers are Heidi Pitzner, Rick Wellner and Vinnie Krause.
On Saturday, protective fencing was installed around the perimeter of the island, hopefully preventing a repeat.
Duane Hommen, who was up north at the time of the incident, said he wasn’t really surprised one of the goats had fallen off the island.
“I know she didn’t jump, because they wouldn’t jump off of there, so they were probably just screwing around and she got pushed in,” he said. “… These three are just yearlings, so they’re young, rambunctious. Buddy was out there last year, but Anna and Elsa, this was the first time they’d been on the island.”
The goats that were there last year just wanted to eat, Hommen noted. Buddy, Anna and Elsa “wander and play a little more.” On Sunday, he went to the island to spend some time with the goats and make sure Elsa was doing OK.
“It was good that somebody was watching,” Hommen said. “I want to thank him very much for what he did.”