Mother is lone survivor after a family of five’s kayak capsizes on Lake Superior

MADELINE ISLAND, Wis. — A family's vacation on Lake Superior took a tragic turn when a kayak capsized, killing the father and three young children and leaving the mother as the sole survivor.

The family from Loyal, Wisconsin, set out from Madeline Island in an open-top tandem kayak Thursday for a 4-mile (6-kilometer) paddle across open water to Michigan Island. But their 13½-foot (4-meter) kayak capsized after the wind picked up.

Eric Fryman, 39, and his three children, Kyra, 9, Annaliese, 5, and Jansen, 3, were found dead in the frigid water. Only his wife, the children’s mother, Cari Mews-Fryman, 29, survived.

They were kayaking from Madeline Island to Michigan Island on Thursday afternoon when the wind and waves started picking up and caused water to get into the kayak, according to US Coast Guard spokesman Alan Haraf.

The family's 13 ½-foot craft tipped over and all five, each wearing a life jacket, fell into the open water, Haraf said. Coast Guard officials said hypothermia was probably a major factor in the deaths, especially of the children.

The family vacationed in the area last year and looked forward to visiting again, according to Bobi Jo Mews, Cari's sister.

"They loved to go camping together and they took their kids everywhere and explored the world," Bobi Jo Mews said.

Cari Mews was able to use her cell phone, which was stored in a water-proof bag, to text her sister.

"I got a text message that said '911,' and then immediately following, 'Michigan Island.' I knew that they were going kayaking that day. ... I just knew I had to call the police to see if they could go look for them," Bobi Jo Mews said.

The text message did not reach Cari Mews' sister until about five hours later because there was no cell service in the area, according to Haraf.

After the sister contacted authorities, a half-dozen agencies mobilized to aid in rescue efforts in search of the family. The Coast Guard issued an emergency broadcast to all boats in the area asking them to divert to where the kayak had capsized.

Around 10 p.m. CT, crews spotted a small light coming from the water near Michigan Island. It was from Cari Mews, who had been submerged in 60-degree water for nearly six hours.

"She was holding what was possibly a cell phone light," Haraf said. "She was exhausted and was suffering from hypothermia."

While attempting to swim to Michigan Island, Mews became separated from her husband and their children, ages 3, 6 and 9, in the choppy waters of Lake Superior, according to the Ashland County Sheriff's Office, which aided in the rescue.

"It was shortly after (midnight) when a Coast Guard crew located the bodies of the father, the little boy and one of the little girls," Haraf said.

Thunderstorms in the area hampered rescue efforts until Friday morning. At that time, the body of the 9-year-old daughter was located on the shore of Michigan Island by the National Park Service.

Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, whose staff assisted with the rescue efforts, said the Apostle Islands are mostly undeveloped and forested, with rocky shorelines and long distances between each island.

“Some of the places that people want to go kayaking are incredibly attractive but also deceptively dangerous,” he said. “This particular incident happened in a place that is not often traversed by people on kayaks, and for good reason.”

Paddlers crossing open water between islands can become exposed to strong winds and waves, he said. Storms can also come up fast, he said, although the one that struck Thursday was predicted in advance.

Gail Green, director of Living Adventure, an outfitter near Bayfield, Wisconsin, that specializes in kayak tours of the Apostle Islands, said open-top kayaks like one the family used are good for calm, sunny days close to the shore, but can fill with water and capsize in rough conditions.

Krumenaker said lake-crossers should practice capsizing and recovering, something Green's company does with paddlers before overnight trips.

"You need to have a healthy respect for how cold the water can be," he said.