It was a cottage weekend like any other in the Haliburton Highlands of Ontario. We drove three hours north on a Friday evening through heavy traffic, arriving at the cottage at 11 at night.
It was about 20 years ago, and my in-laws had only recently bought the place. It was a challenge getting used to all the cottage-country conditions, including a dock, a motor boat, snakes, ice damage, smoky fireplaces, a water pump and daily swimming.
But one thing was for sure: It was an escape. The azure lake, the towering pines, the whiff of cedar, the shining birch, the glittering stars - they were all there.
A breeze cooled us in the heat of the day and triggered a shudder at night as we sat around the fire pit, watching the flames dance. It was Nirvana. But like everything that is so picturesque, there was a dark side, a side that I had never known, one that could have taken two lives.
That afternoon was the same as any other. We gathered our armloads of things for the beach and took the short walk down to the water. The beach was hidden behind a rock outcropping, out of sight of the cottage, far enough that nobody could hear a person calling. There was only one other cottage in sight, directly across the tiny bay, and their beach was on the far side so we rarely saw them.
At about 3:30, my mother-in-law and my wife headed up to the cottage to start supper, carrying with them a load of gear. My father-in-law remained smoking and reading the paper. Finally. he folded his lawn chair.
"I oughta be getting back," he said. "I guess supper will be in an hour and they'll want a fire tonight."
"Sure," I said. "I'll help."
But I was reluctant to go back at such a pleasant moment. The sun was cooling, the shadows lengthening and the waves lapping. "Be right there."
My daughter, Cleo, was happily playing with her inflated ball, kicking it down the beach. She was only five years old and an active kid. The beach was just a narrow strip of sand that dropped off quite quickly into the water. Cleo didn't know how to swim at the time and had to wear her life jacket, but her mother had taken it back with her.
Suddenly, her ball took a bounce and landed in the water, where the breeze blew it out.
"It's okay," I said. "I'll get it."
I was about to swim after it, but realized I couldn't leave her behind.
"Get on this air mattress," I said.
She jumped on and I pushed her ahead of me as I swam after the ball. The ball skidded away. When we were 20 feet from shore, I suddenly thought, this is a really stupid thing to do.
"Don't move at all," I said to Cleo. "Just sit perfectly still."
I reached out and grabbed the ball and set it on top of the air mattress. My heart was thumping as I gently turned the air mattress around to steer it back to shore. I saw a person, a young boy, maybe 15 years old, standing on the opposite shore watching. At least there's someone to help if anything goes wrong, I thought. We were now about 40 feet from shore in water well over my head.
Suddenly, as if in a nightmare, it happened. I don't know what triggered it - maybe Cleo reaching for the ball - but in a flash the air mattress twisted and she flipped into the water. The waves closed over her like a door.
I dove down into the murky water and saw her white body twisting through the dimness. She was about five feet under when I got to her and pulled her to the surface. She wrapped her arms around my neck.
"Daddy, Daddy, Daddy," she screamed, half-choking and crying.
"Just hang on tight," I yelled. "Just hang on."
She was desperately thrashing her legs while gripping my neck and screaming. Within a few seconds, I, too, was struggling to stay afloat with this 50-pound weight around my neck. A true primal fear ran through my body and I thought, we'll both drown. A humdrum afternoon had suddenly turned into a fight for life.
But a stroke of luck saved us: the air mattress. It was slowly drifting away, but I managed to reach it and hang on with one arm while I stroked with my other arm toward the shore. The whole time, Cleo clung to my neck, crying.
A word of advice: A drowning person, even a child, will drag you down. I've been a poor swimmer all my life but in the previous year I had decided to exercise by swimming lengths in a pool. At first I could not swim even half a length, but after a year I was up to 20 lengths. So I was in good shape for swimming, yet I was being dragged down by a five-year-old.
As my feet struck bottom, I dragged her and the air mattress up onto the beach and lay there, catching my breath. I could hardly believe what had just happened. If that flimsy air mattress had floated out of reach, we would have both drowned.
Then I turned and looked across the bay, wondering if the boy had gone for help. He was still standing there, watching. He had not moved.
Randy Brown lives in Toronto.