Terrible thoughts kept popping into Blake Morden's head as he frantically paddled his kayak in the direction of the shore at Grand Beach Saturday afternoon with an exhausted man and a terrified little girl hanging on to a rope behind him.
Morden — whose muscles were burning and back seizing from a 3 1/2-hour kayak trip earlier in the day — was struggling against the stiff wind on Lake Winnipeg's choppy, frigid water with the added weight he was towing, and contemplated asking Jason Cherewayko to let go of the rope.
It's something he feels incredibly guilty about.
"I thought this man was going to have to sacrifice himself for his daughter," Morden said.
But the little girl wasn't Cherewayko's daughter; he had no idea who she was when his wife heard a man's voice yelling, "You're going too far."
Cherewayko, his wife Cynthia Cherewayko and their four kids were spending time on the beach and saw two young girls on inflatables being pushed by the wind further out on the lake.
The couple started walking towards the water, grabbing a couple of dollar-store tubes from another group of people. The father of the children was in the water, trying to bring the girls to safety, when he started to struggle at the edge of a sandbar with a sharp drop-off. He was fighting to hang on to the older child when the other girl started to float away.
"I stayed with the dad and my husband continued on to the little girl," Cynthia said. "I’m a good swimmer. I mean, I’m not the strongest swimmer, but I felt like I could do this."
Cynthia yelled for the dad and the daughter to hold on to her tube, telling the young girl not to let go.
"I said, ‘Honey, you have to hold onto this tube with all your might. Even if your dad lets go or I let go, just hold on. Kick your little legs and hold on.'"
As she was helping the father and daughter back toward the beach, the tube flew out from under them. Someone came running and helped get them back to shore.
Cynthia made sure someone had called 911. She instructed her children to get blankets and towels from their cottage neighbours and wait for the ambulances.
She looked out into the water and saw that Jason was well past the safe beach area, swimming towards the younger girl on her inflatable tube.
Jason was exhausted and began to think he and the girl might die because they were so far out, but he continued swimming until he caught hold of her inflatable.
There, in the middle of the freezing lake, while their families watched from the shore, Jason and the little girl — he learned she was six years old — floated while he kept talking to her in an effort to keep her comfortable. He told her jokes and they took turns singing Savage Love by Jason Derulo — her favourite song.
He told her that they were going to be OK, even though he didn’t believe it.
Meanwhile, several people were trying to get into the beach safety office, which was closed, and someone went to find Morden and his kayak. Many of the cottagers on the beach had boats, but nowhere to launch from.
Morden launched his kayak off some rocks and began to paddle as hard as he could.
When he finally reached them, the girl had turned purple and was shivering atop her inflatable, and Jason was running out of steam. Morden didn’t have life-jackets with him because they were drying out back at his cottage from earlier in the day and he’d left in such frantic rush that he didn’t grab them. But he had the rope.
"I told Jason that he could hold the rope I brought, but I was screaming at him that he couldn’t touch my boat, because if the boat flipped we could all die," Morden recalled. "He just looked at me and calmly said, ‘I understand.'"
Plagued by grim thoughts, Morden kept paddling and he heard Jason singing to the little girl and she singing back; he was trying to keep her calm and awake. When her tiny voice stopped echoing the song, Morden’s heart sank. He thought she might be dead.
He said he paddled for what seemed to be forever, and the shore never seemed to get any closer.
He's not really sure what happened next. He says he blacked out, or something. He remembers looking up and being at the shore with flashing lights and frantic people everywhere. Paramedics rushed in, and he got out of the kayak and collapsed on the beach.
Jason and Cynthia are the true heroes of this saga, Morden said, adding the experience has changed him.
"It’s going to help me be a better person," he said.
Cynthia said what they did was "dangerous and stupid," but they knew they had to help.
She said the province needs to implement more safety measures and provide emergency equipment such as ropes and dinghies, as well as a safe launch pad closer than the current one in Belair, about 15 minutes away via Highway 59.
She and Jason have tried since Saturday to find the girls' parents on Facebook to see how they’re doing. She said she’s proud of everyone who helped.
"It can happen so fast," Cynthia said. "We are just so thankful he (Morden) got to them in time."
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project
Shelley Cook is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press and manages the paper's Reader Bridge project, which seeks to expand coverage of underserved communities.