“Don’t let go of the raft!”

A daughter’s near drowning a year ago in Lake Michigan

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Sleeping Bear Bay appeared as a sun-kissed, calm pool on Sunday, July 8, 2018. It was just before 10 in the morning and Courtney Kaiser-Sandler had taken her 6-year-old daughter Sofia, her brother Matt’s family who was visiting from Portland, Oregon, and a few family friends to the beach at the Coast Guard Station in Glen Haven.

While the adults were unfolding beach chairs, Sofia, her 6-year-old Sofie and her 10-year-old friend Emma waded into Lake Michigan with Sofia and Sofie sitting in a unicorn floating plastic raft.

“Don’t let go of the raft,” said Emma’s mom, Angela. And at that moment, Sofie jumped off and for just a second, Emma, the older girl did just that.

Suddenly, a strong south wind began carrying Sofia’s unicorn floatie offshore at a clip too fast for the adults to catch her—away from the safety of shore and into the deep, cold blue.

Courtney and Angela gave chase, as did a 24-year-old man nearby on the beach who happened to be a lifeguard.

“I just can’t get to her!” screamed Angela, as their legs felt colder and colder the deeper they swam, and the sand felt like mud, depriving them of traction. 

Before the adults knew it, they too were unable to touch the bottom, and turned to swim back to the beach.

“Courtney’s brother Matt, who came swimming within 10 feet of Sofia, yelled out, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the raft!”

The girl, floating alone now into open Lake Michigan, was wearing sunglasses but no life jacket. She calmly held on to the floatie’s handles.

Courtney returned to shore and grabbed her cell phone, while her friend Jed Wakeham ran to look for a nearby ranger for help. She instinctively called her friend Andy Metheny, who works for the Coast Guard in Traverse City. “Sofia’s alone on Lake Michigan and I can’t get to her!” she shouted. He routed the call to 911 dispatch and the Traverse City Coast Guard.

By that time, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore ranger Andy Blake had joined her on the beach. Through his binoculars they watched Sofia on the unicorn, drifting away.

“I kept saying to myself and to her, ‘Whatever you do, Sofia, don’t let go of raft’,” remembered Courtney.

As she talked to Coast Guard dispatch, who was now on the line with the Glen Lake Fire Department, Courtney kept turning to the ranger with the binoculars, asking “can you see her in the raft?”

“I just needed to know she was still on the raft,” Courtney reflected a year later. “I knew that if she fell off, that would be it.”

Meanwhile, Sofia’s friend Emma was on the beach behind her, in tears. Courtney calmly walked to Emma and consoled her. “If we lose Sofia, it’s not your fault,” she told the 10-year-old. “Please don’t think you did anything wrong. I should have been in the water.”

Courtney began praying (she doesn’t usually pray) and saying to herself, “Bring her back to me, bring her back to me.”

Once Sofia passed a mile offshore, Blake could no longer see her through his binoculars. Luckily, a couple emerged on the beach with a pair of new, super-powered binoculars, which they handed to the ranger. The 6-year-old reemerged in their view. She was still on the unicorn.

The mother kept repeating, in cycles, “Bring her back to me,” to Blake “Can you see her?” and to Sofia “Stay on the raft.”

Finally, Coast Guard dispatch informed her via cell phone that the Glen Lake Fire Department boat had launched. Then, they could see her. Then, they were alongside her. She was still in the raft. Then, they had her in their arms.

Lieutenant Bryan Ferguson, who the reigns as Glen Lake Fire Chief this spring, was driving the boat. Two other firemen were aboard. When they reached Sofia she was 1.6 miles offshore in 3.5-foot waves and a wind whipping from the south. The surface water temperature was in the high 50s, Ferguson guesses, and certainly much colder a few feet below the surface.

“It was difficult because her white inflatable unicorn was acting like a sail in the wind,” said Ferguson. “We came downwind to her and let her float alongside our boat. The guys on the boat were able to reach over the rail and grab her.”

Ferguson asked if she was scared. Sofia said, “No, I’m just riding my unicorn and wearing sunglasses.” She didn’t have a care in the world, he remembered.

The ride back to the public dock at the end of Lake Street, near Le Bear Resort, took 20 minutes. Ferguson isn’t sure, but remembers that, out of instinct, his crew held onto Sofia the boat ride.

Courtney was waiting at the boat ramp, along with ranger Blake. Sofia was calm, while her mother wept when the men handed her over.

The whole experience took 50 minutes, from when Sofia floated away to the mother-daughter reunion in Glen Arbor.

“Sofia asked me why I was crying,” said Courtney. “She was as calm as a cucumber.”

Ferguson offered the unicorn raft to the mother. “Good God, no. I never want to see that again,” she responded.

Courtney FaceTimed her husband Jesse, so that Sofia’s Dad would know she was OK.

“I was steering and chasing butterflies,” Sofia told her parents. “I kept tasting the water because I was afraid of sharks. I was just trying to get back to you.”

After they considered going directly home, Courtney and Sofia decided to return to the Coast Guard Station beach to play a little bit. They hadn’t yet relaxed at the beach.

“We were stunned,” said Courtney. “But she was willing to get back in the water, with a life vest and next to the shore.

“I’m so grateful that she was willing to get back in the water.”

Lessons learned

The near fatal experience taught Courtney and Sofia life lessons, which they are willing to share.

“We talk a lot about safety and not using big floaties unless we’re in a pool. And always with a life jacket. Luckily our unicorn raft had a bottom to it, I can’t even imagine if it hadn’t.

“I wouldn’t advise bringing those gigantic unicorn floaties to Lake Michigan,” Courtney said. “Those long necks act like a sail. The wind just carries them. If you do bring a raft, your child needs to have a life preserver on. And you should have a 100-foot rope tied to the floatie.

“We wouldn’t let a kid get in the water without an adult being in the water, too.”

“People also should realize how cold the water is. Lake Michigan is basically an ocean. It’s huge and vast.”

Sofia was willing to talk about the day she nearly drowned. But she would ask her mother to tell family members. Courtney, who is chair of the contemporary music program at Interlochen Arts Academy, wrote a song about the experience in order to process what happened, or what nearly happened. She played the song this past fall at the Earthwork Harvest Festival and then again this winter at the Great Indoor Folk Festival in Traverse City.

“It’s hard and embarrassing to get upset in front of strangers in public, but it feels good to tell the story. Life happens. We need to share these kinds of stories with people.”

Here are the lyrics to her song, titled “From the Shore”:

Floating on Tears of Poseidon 

Along sleeping bear bay 

On the edge of Lake Michigan 

My daughter was carried away 

A wind maiden appeared 

Drawing her close 

Exhale to the north 

Not where the sun rose 

Bring her back 

Bring her back

Bring her back to me 

Biboon fought the South 

Fire came from the East

She tasted the water

Steering with hand and wing, oh

Sekhmet swam across

The two miles of sea

Prayer upon prayer

Bring her back to me, oh

Bring her back 

Bring her back

Bring her back to me 

Bloody on the water

Blood on the shore

Bloody on the water

Blood on the shore

Bring her back 

Bring her back

Bring her back to me