SOUTH LAKE TAHOE -- The journey across Highway 50 had been going fine.
Cars at the intersection of Ski Run Boulevard stopped to let a mother mallard and her seven ducklings cross the four-lane road.
Things went south when the mother hopped from a grated-storm drain to the top of the curb. The ducklings, about 6-weeks-old, with webbed feet a fraction the size of their mother's, fell through the metal bars of the drain.
"I watched them one by one," said Yvonne, a Seattle resident who witnessed the incident from behind the wheel of her car on Thursday. "It really hurt to see that. I didn't know how far down or what was down there."
Yvonne, who would not give her last name, parked her car, got out, and looked into the grating. The ducklings were swimming comfortably. The mother was "up on the grass calling for her babies," Yvonne said.
An El Dorado County Animal Control officer arrived about 10:45 a.m. after the agency got a call from staff at a nearby hotel. Officer Bryan Unruh brought out a cat net. As soon as it came close, the ducklings headed east down the drain toward Stateline.
"They go back in there every time they see you," Unruh said.
"They're smart," said Henry Brzezinski, chief animal control officer who drove from Tahoma to assist Unruh on the call.
Turns out a hose provided by the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department was key to the rescue of the ducklings. Firefighters opened a grating a couple hundred feet east of where the ducklings dropped in and sent water up the drain toward Unruh and his net.
"Eventually they got tired of swimming upstream," Unruh said. "They came out in bunches: the first one had five, the other two."
Yvonne was ecstatic with Unruh's work. She said the whole event was such an uplifting experience she was going to extend her Tahoe vacation one more day.
"Thank you for sticking with it," she told Unruh. "You kept looking at all the options. I saw them fall in the grate and it just broke my heart."
Capt. Rick Myers guessed the ducks were wading at a pond near the Fantasy Inn before their adventure.
"People kept thanking us," Myers said. "Any life we can save we'll do it. That's why we signed on."
The mother was reunited with her ducklings shortly after the animal control officer plucked the last two from the drain. She had stayed in the area, approaching her offspring as they chirped inside an animal control cage.
Brzezinski baited the mother with her ducklings and headed for the lake. The mother never wavered in her march behind the cage. She quacked in a gleeful manner all the way to the water's edge.