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Canada Father watches helplessly as wife, daughter drown in icy depths

Water runs deep through the life of Tony Robinson.

The 47-year-old contractor and his four siblings spent childhood summers in the Muskoka Lakes Township. His grandfather was one of the first to own a cottage on the shores of Lake Rosseau. He grew up an avid swimmer, a rower, and joined the navy as a ship's diver. Even his dog is named Sculler. And when he left the military in the late 1980s, it was back to the lake he went, building a waterfront dream home where he and his wife, Carolyn Bray-Robinson, and their two daughters Savannah and Jolene, became well-loved activists in their small and tight community.

But this past Saturday evening, as the sun set on a glorious day and the family drove in two separate utility vehicles across the frozen lake, Mr. Robinson watched helplessly as the water swallowed his wife and youngest daughter.

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He saw it all - the vehicle plunge front-first through the lake-top ice, the futile efforts to free themselves, and the speedy descent below the surface before they disappeared.

"He jumped in after them ... and he swam around under the ice, and my brother, he's built like an ox, but there was nothing he could do, nothing," said Tony's older brother Mike Robinson. "For a man who has always been around water, who is so safety conscious about water, this is just unbelievable."

Divers with the Ontario Provincial Police pulled the bodies of Ms. Bray-Robinson, 46, and Jolene, 12, from the bottom of Lake Rosseau yesterday morning. They were still belted to their seats, wearing their helmets, Mike Robinson said.

"My brother always insisted that if they were going out on the ice they had to wear helmets. ... He is such a stickler for safety."

Like many of the 6,500 locals who stay in Muskoka's cottage country year-round, the family crossed the frozen lake countless times, regarding it as much a transportation artery as one made of asphalt. Police, however, have lately been warning residents of the melts and "pressure-cracks" that can form unpredictable fissures this time of year.

The deaths leave an enormous hole in the community, residents say, and a lingering sensation that fate is capricious and cruel.

"You know what I take from it? Make sure the people that you love, you tell them you love them each and every day," said Susan Pryke, the mayor of Muskoka Townships. The Bray-Robinsons are something like Muskoka's first family, given their history in the region, their activism and their accomplishments. Mr. Robinson has literally helped to build cottage country and is a volunteer firefighter. His dynamo wife, executive director of the YWCA, distinguished herself as a forceful women's rights and poverty activist, a confident community leader with an infectious smile. Their eldest daughter Savannah, 17, is student council president and the late Jolene was much loved as "an absolute joy of a person," her uncle said.

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The Robinson family has gathered at Lake Rosseau for three generations. This past Friday, all five of the Robinson children returned, from as far away as Vancouver, to celebrate the 84th birthday of their mother Betty, a gathering especially precious because their father, Harold, is battling cancer, said Mike Robinson, a dentist in the Barrie area.

Harold Robinson, an ex-military man, physician and a former medical officer of health in the area, moved permanently to the region in 1980. Tony and Carolyn Bray-Robinson built their home just over a kilometre down the road after leaving Halifax, where Carolyn had worked as a journalist and Tony was stationed as a naval officer.

The family planned to enjoy a big meal at their parents' place on Saturday evening, and late that afternoon, Tony and Carolyn thought it would be fun to take the kids out across the lake for some hot chocolate at the swanky new Red Leaves resort, Mike Robinson said.

"It was just going to be a quick trip, they were to be back at six o'clock," he said.

But it was on the return trip that Ms. Bray-Robinson, driving a Kawasaki Mule, a utility vehicle that resembles a golf cart, hit an ice patch the locals call "a heave." A heave, he said, results from fluctuating temperatures that prompt water to shift beneath the ice surface and a puddle to form on the top.

Mere seconds after hitting it, the nose of the vehicle cracked through the thin ice, Mr. Robinson said, and his own daughter, Jeni, 13, who was riding unbelted in the back, managed to jump out to safety, as did the family dog, Sculler.

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"[Jeni]heard them say, 'Oh no,' and the vehicle started taking on water very quickly."

Tony Robinson meanwhile was following up the rear in a second vehicle, driven by Mike Robinson's older daughter Erika, 16. Tony scrambled to the hole in the ice and dove into the frigid waters after them. Erika called 911, and police and local ice fishers soon arrived at the scene. But it was too late.

Mike Robinson said his brother had "popped up to the surface," wet and "quite hysterical." The couple's eldest daughter Savannah, who was spending March break with friends in Myrtle Beach, flew back Sunday morning.

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