Tonight the plan was to write about our final two days of winter fun and crazy adventures at the Winter Festival on Mackinac Island. And I will do that in the coming days. But tonight I have a story to tell – and tragically, it is one without a happy ending. I debated whether the story should be told, then decided to write it as a tribute to these two women, whom I only knew for 24 hours. In just that short amount of time, they touched my heart. I met them, shared smiles with them, talked with them, teased them, outbid one of them for a rug at a silent auction, said goodbye to them at the school on Sunday afternoon. Three hours later they were gone.
On the last post to this blog, there is a photograph near the bottom of Don Schwarck and I standing outside his home on the island. Dawn and I had started walking back to town from Turtle Park, and when we passed Don’s home, he had seen us and invited us in to meet his wife and sister-in-law. As you know, Don and Ted worked together this past summer at the State Park Visitor’s Center. Ted and I had been to dinner at Don’s, with other park employees, and Don had come to our condo for dinner – bringing fresh veggies from his garden. A retired high school teacher and coach, Don and Ted had bonded instantly and become good friends. But I had never met his wife, Karen. Karen owned her own travel agency and was away for days at a time. When she would get a few days back home, she cherished her time on the island – a place she had always wanted to live – a dream they had realized several years ago.
Meeting Karen and her sister, Edye, was like meeting two bubbles of light. Their smiles were almost identical, genuine, and contagious. They were happy women, and it showed. We were invited to stay for a glass of wine, but Dawn and I were tired and ready to get back down the hill – to pull off snowboots and heavy coats. So we only stayed a few moments. We talked about seeing them at the school the next day, and we left.
On Sunday, they arrived at the school a little after we did, ate breakfast, and spent some time checking out the silent auction items. Edye and Mike (Forrester) instantly got into a bidding war for a 20-person hayride this summer, although at the time they had no idea who they were bidding against. I was bidding against Edye for a rag rug made from sheets – and again didn’t know I was bidding against her (only assigned numbers were used in the bidding – not names). We spent several hours at the school – playing games, voting on photographs for the 2012 Mackinac Island calendar, chatting with people we hadn’t seen the day before. Every 30 minutes or so we would run into Karen or Edye – be warmed by their smiles, chat a moment, and move on.
The final event of the day was the announcement of the silent auction winners – Edye had outbid Mike for the hayride, I had outbid her on the rug. But she was still smiling as she picked up and paid for at least 7-8 other items on which she had been the highest bidder. She was beaming as she walked by our table and spotted the rug sitting next to my purse. “Oh, so YOU were #61!” she said. She and Mike teased each other about her winning the hayride. I cornered Karen and asked if their snowmobile could carry three people. I wondered if she would consider driving Dawn and I up to Ft. Holmes later that afternoon. She grinned and said, “We’ve never tried it with three, but I’ll talk to Don about it. If he says ok, I’ll come get you. We can’t go to Ft. Holmes though – that’s off limits for snowmobiles.” Then we talked about getting together this summer for dinner. When we were leaving, we all said our goodbyes. As Dawn and I left the school walking up to the condo, Karen was riding away on the snowmobile.
Jill and Mike met us at the condo, and we went in for a few minutes so I could leave the rug I had bought. We headed downtown, spent some time out on the marina docks taking photos, then went back to our rooms to rest. It was late when we left for dinner at the Village Inn, and we didn’t return to our rooms until almost 10:30. Mike was still standing in the door of our room chatting about our trip home the next day when Marge (our innkeeper) came up the stairs and said Don had just called. He was wondering if we had seen Karen and Edye. They had left the house around 4:00 p.m., after dropping off their prizes from the auction and said they were going for a ride. When they didn’t return in a couple of hours, he just figured they had met up with us downtown, maybe saw us in a restaurant, and we were all dining together. He said Karen wouldn’t normally do that without checking in, but that is what he told himself. He had already called the police, and when Marge relayed the message that we had not seen them since they left the school, he became deeply concerned. I called Don, and he told me the police were checking around the island at different homes where Superbowl parties had been held, to see if possibly they had dropped by any of those. If they were not located at any of the parties, they planned to start an organized search.
No more than 15 minutes later, the roar of snowmobiles filled the quiet air outside The Cottage Inn. They came from every direction, converging on the Community Hall, which is also the firestation. We stood at our window and watched, as 10 minutes later those same snowmobiles left on the first search of the night – riding out into the cold darkness on a mission to find two missing women. We found out later they searched every trail on the island, as well as the bluffs and perimeter of the island by the water. They found nothing and returned to the firestation. When we heard and saw them returning, Jill and I walked down to the corner across the street from the station, hoping for some kind of word on the search.
Dennis Bradley, the island fire chief arrived and motioned Jill and I to come in. He knew we knew the family and asked several questions. I left my cell phone number with them and asked to be called if someone needed to go up and be with Don. Then Jill and I walked back to the hotel. Ten minutes later my cellphone rang. The island doctor thought it would be good for someone to be with Don, and asked if I’d go. A police car picked Jill and I up a few minutes later, took us up to the house, and dropped us off.
Don was very worried. He wanted so badly to be out looking himself, but the police had asked him to stay there by the phone. Both women had left their cellphones at the house, but had gone out in full winter gear – it helped to know they were dressed for the cold. By then it was midnight, and for the next 3 1/2 hours we paced the floor, talked a little, worried a lot, and prayed for a good outcome. It was not to be.
At 3:30 a.m. we saw the lights of the police car pull up in front of the house. Dr. Karen, two policemen, and Father Ray got out. We all instantly knew.
In that 3 1/2 hours, some 45 island residents had come together and searched the entire island. They had gone out first one person per snowmobile and covered every trail, the bluffs, and the lake shore. The second search was by two people on each snowmobile – one to drive, one to shine spotlights down off the trails. Around 2:30 a.m., Dennis called to tell us that the Coast Guard had been notified and would be joining the search within an hour. Don was certain they would have never gone anywhere near the water, but when the coast guard called 30 minutes later, it was to ask what colors they were wearing so they could put the appropriate filters on their search lights. They planned to use the filtered light to search the island by air.
Karen and Edye were found before the Coast Guard arrived. On the third search of the night, the islanders were on foot. It was 2 degrees by then, and they planned to walk every inch of the island. In a spot on the West Bluff they had passed several times already, on foot they located a place in the fence that was broken – the exact width of a snowmobile. Putting it together later, they concluded that Karen and Edye had ridden down the West Bluff toward the Grand Hotel. Upon reaching the Grand’s driveway and seeing that the snow had melted there, they had attempted to turn around. It is assumed that after putting the machine in reverse and backing up close to the fence, they had accidently pressed the gas. The machine had possibly jerked causing them to fall forward, pressing the gas even more. The snowmobile went through the fence backward and down the steep ledge. They were gone instantly.
The priest, Jill and I stayed with Don until 7 a.m. He had begun the process of calling family. Each woman had two sons, their mother and father are still alive, they had a brother. I called Liz (our friend who teaches on the island). She and her family live just down from Don. She came immediately and has been there ever since. We flew off the island three hours later.
Mackinac Island is a beautiful paradise, but occasionally its terrain can be unforgiving. The longer we live there, the more examples we see of the dangers – from bikes to horses to snowmobiles. Does it make us love it less – no. But it does make our respect for the island grow and gives us an awareness of our surroundings and a vigilance to be careful. But occasionally there is a freakish accident, and that is what this was. Karen was a careful driver, they were not out speeding or trying to be daredevils. They simply went on a snowmobile ride and did not come back. We certainly cannot fathom a reason for that. It happened, and we are left to ask “why”.
When I talked to a couple of island residents today, they both said Don was doing as well as could be expected. The island has responded as they always do – with helping hands, with love, with food. Again, it is the people who make this island so precious.
I don’t think Don would mind me sharing that after he had been told, he said to Dr. Karen, “She loved this island so much. She dreamed of living here, and it was here she was her happiest.” And Dr. Karen responded, “Wasn’t she blessed that she had that – and aren’t you blessed to know that she lived her dream.”
24 hours – such a short period of time to know someone. But I will never forget their smiles and their joy of life. Heaven has to be an even happier place tonight.