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.
You’re just like my favorite aunt. Composed, eloquent, compassionate and humble.
You were there when the need was greatest.
God bless you.
I don’t have the words to say how sorry I am for all the family involved in this tragic accident. Maybe this is another reason that you felt the need to be there for the winter festival Brenda, to bring some sort of comfort to Don. I’m sure Don appreciated your special friendship at such a sad time. We are all truely blessed to know you.
I’m so sorry to read what happened on the island to those 2 ladies. I read in shock and sadness for everyone involved. I just don’t know what to say.
I am so saddened to hear of this tragedy. My heart goes out to the sisters’ families and friends. When I first read of this yesterday, one of my first thoughts was that I was grateful that the sisters had a wonderful weekend of fun and were doing something they loved together when they passed. I hope, eventually, their families will be able to take some measure of comfort from that.
I wanted to thank you, Brenda, and Mike for allowing me to experience the Island during the winter, something I may never get to do in person. Although crossing the ice bridge is on my bucket list, the thought of traveling 13 hours to contend with more snow does not appeal to me right now. I have plenty of snow right here in Jersey. So, again, thank you for your words and your photos. I have enjoyed them both immensely.
That was my post above, was logged in as a different name. Sorry.
Again, I feel so bad for those 2 ladies and their families. When I read about all the islanders getting together for the search on a cold winter night it brought tears to my eyes. As did what happened as well.
What an amazing story, about amazing people, coming together. My heart aches for the families, but rejoices for these ladies who are now experiencing beauty that surpases even that of the wonderful Island.
God bless you, Brenda! I don’t know you personally, but you obviously have a gift of willingness to be there when the need is greatest. Thank you for sharing this story. Praying for everyone involved.
My wife and I follow and check in religiously to Mike’s Mackinac Island Blog site, and although we were envious of their trip to the Winter Festival, we were also very excited and happy for all of those that were traveling to the Island. We followed the posts, and were happy to see how much enjoyment everybody was having on the Island. When I read about the tragic and unfair deaths of these two beautiful people, it just tore my heart out. I am sad for the families, and sad for those who have traveled so far to have to experience such a devistating thing. All we can do is just wonder why, and cherish every moment that we have left. In some small way, it is a comfort that they left this earth doing something that they enjoy, in a place that they truly enjoyed even more.
Such a sad and touching story. Don and the sisters’ families will be in my prayers. I never really thought about all of the dangers on the island. But Don and the doc were right..what a gift to be able to live her dream on the island for the bit of time she was there.
Thank you for sharing this story with us…
You were where God wanted you to be and you stepped up. Bless you my dear friend. Our prayers are with our co-worker and friend Don and with all of you that experienced this life changing event.Blessings
Such a tragic end to your fairy tale visit to the island Bree..and how difficult it must have been for you to write such a heartfelt story today.
Do you remember the musical group ALABAMA’s song ‘Angels Amoung Us’? I just love that song, & it came to mind immediately when reading your story today…
“Oh I believe there are angels among us
Sent down to us from somewhere up above
They come to you and me in our darkest hours
To show us how to live
To teach us how to give
To guide us with a light of love
They wear so many faces
Show up in the strangest places
Grace us with their mercy
In our time of need”…
As your many friends have already written, YOU, Brenda, where one of those angels this past weekend. You were surely guided to the island for a higher purpose than to experience the islands Winter Festival..you did what comes natural to you (even though I’ve never actually met you either like Steph wrote) you offered comfort & support to your friend Don when he truly needed an angel’s comfort.
I hope that you can feel the comfort of all of your blog friends surrounding you with our prayers, our hugs & our love. We are thinking of you & of those wonderful ladies–angels all of you.
Jane in Minnesota
What sweet, sweet words, Jane. I’m glad I was there, but the people on Mackinac Island are the true angels. The way they responded and the way they have rallied around Don the last few days has been so awesome and inspiring. They are such truly special people. When Don returns to the island, he will be surrounded by their love and support. He will need them so much, and they will be there for him.
It was so great to have you guys here, in more ways than we could have imagined.
Mackinac is considered sacred ground by the native Americans, we can only hope to be honored to experience it’s power and be touched by it.
Beautifully said, Leanne. Thank you for making our trip so special. We had no idea we would get that sleigh ride – what a great surprise!
I know you only through reading your wonderful blog(s). I love the island.
Others have already said what I would have said so I can only say that I am so sorry…Tears are streaming down my face. It’s just so sad. My heart breaks for the family and friends of these women….
Laura in Michigan
I’m so glad to have heard this story from your eyes too. When I heard about the tragedy I instantly felt so much heartache for Don and the rest of the family. I read the news articles about it and heard the same stories from others, but I’m very glad that you were able to write about this and about how lovely these women truly were. I never met them, but from the way Don talked about his wife, you could tell she was really something special. Of course I cried once more upon reading this, because it just isn’t fair to have such wonderful people taken away so suddenly, but I just want to thank you (and everyone on the island really) for being such wonderful people and being there for Don in such a tragic time.
I have tried since I first read your blog early this morning to find the words to let you know how sorry I am about the tragic end to your dream come true trip to the island. It is only fitting that you share the tragic death of the sister with those with whom you shared the happy times. My prayers go out for the families of the two women and for Don. They also go out for you and the rest of those who went to the island with you.
Thank you for this heartfelt blog. It takes your breath away to know that everyone on the island is grieving. Everyone is so connected with everyone else. They are all family.
I truly feel for you all.
It is such a sad story, but thank you for sharing it. My heart goes out to Don and the other family members. I will be thinking about them and wishing them peace.
What a tragic accident. My heart goes out to Don and the family. I felt like I knew them, just a little, through your writing. I know it was a sad ending to what seemed to be a wonderful trip. At least you were there to be of comfort to Don.
How sad… makes you realize how precious life is. Thanks for sharing Bree:(
I know God has each of us touch others lives, and you have in your blogs about the beautiful fun times and the sad times of life. Glad you had a wonderful experience and sorry for the tragety for Don’s family.
I’m not sure if you remember me or not, but I was one of the GSRs who worked with Ted and Don this summer. Jess (my girlfriend and fellow GSR) and I were shocked to hear about Karen and her sister and our hearts go out to Don and his family. I know that we both really appreciate what you did for him in those early hours and for your help in understanding exactly what happened. After I heard, I checked 9 & 10 and the Detroit News for more information, but their coverage was very impersonal, and it was nice to hear from someone who knew Karen and her sister, however briefly. I still cannot imagine where Don is right now, but I wish him and his family peace, in whatever form it takes.
Of course I remember you and Jess, Andy. It’s good to hear from you, even under these very sad circumstances. There will be a joint memorial service for Karen and Edye on Saturday in South Lyon at 11 a.m. at the First United Methodist Church. Hope you both are doing well. Ted says hello.
Love you, mom. Very sorry to hear about that tragic accident.
I cannot thank you enough for your post. I never had the pleasure of meeting Karen, but Edye was my manager at Comcast and was a friend to everyone on our team. We all miss her terribly, and were (and still are) in comlete shock that she’s gone.
The local coverage here in the Metro-Detroit area about their accident was very matter-of-fact, and since hearing they were gone, I have wondered exactly what happened and – more importantly – if they suffered. How comforting to know how Edye and Karen spent their final day, hearing how much they enjoyed themselves and (especially comforting for me) that they were gone instantly. I cannot tell you how painful the thought of them lying in the cold and snow, injured and suffering, was for me and others who loved them. All of us on Edye’s team learned about this accident on Monday afternoon, and since then all I could do was pray they didn’t suffer…that they went quickly. Thank you for your post; I feel that this was God’s way of letting us all know that our prayers were indeed answered. Thank you again, and God bless you.
I truly struggled with whether to write about the accident, and it helps my heart to know you have found some comfort in reading this post. My prayers are with you and your co-workers, who loved Edye so much. God bless you all. Brenda
How very sad…..my thoughts and prayers are with the families and all who knew and loved them.
Thank you for the most wonderful Blog. I had the honor of working with Edye for the last ten years and she was the most beautiful person. I am going to miss her smiling face.
Edye we will miss you!!!
your Comcast family
I am so sorry for the loss of the two ladies. What a sad story. Thanks you Bree for sharing it with us and I will pray for the families.
I was deeply saddened when I learned of this tragedy on Mike’s blog earlier this week. His comments led me to your blog and I just want to thank you for sharing such a personal experience with strangers such as myself and for the opportunity to meet these wonderful women thru your 24 hours worth of memories. My thoughts and prayers are with their families, friends and co-workers as they struggle to cope with their sudden loss. May God Bless all of you.
I want to say how grateful I am that you wrote this! We are Don’s family and Karen was the most beautiful person I have ever met both inside and out! It brings me comfort to know that her and Edye were enjoying what they did together and that was having fun….
Thank you for the touching post on the events that took Edye and her sister. I had the pleasure of working with Edye here at Comcast and she was truly a bright light around here. It definitely gives us some peace and closure knowing that her last days were in such a beautiful place and she did not suffer.
I came across your blog today…Karen and Edye were my mother and aunt in law. I miss them greatly! I’m glad they were able to touch your life, too. They were amazing women.
Kelly, They were both such lovely, gracious ladies. I know you must miss them every day. Please tell Don hello from Ted and I.
Thank you for writing this post. Edye was, and will always be, my grandma. I was 9 years old when the accident happened, one week and 7 years ago now, and although reading this opened old wounds, it was a wonderful reminder of just how wonderful they were. Not a day goes by where I don’t think of them, and I’d like to thank you for the feeling of being right with them one more time.
I only knew your grandmother and Karen a few hours, Caleb, but their love of life and happy smiles touched my heart. I’m so sorry you only had them for nine years, but I know you still feel their love every day. God bless.