Veteran cruise ship captain Dave Sliter was steadily guiding his vessel toward port along the Upper Peninsula’s Lake Superior shoreline while his passengers marveled at the towering cliffs and the Bridalveil Falls off to their left.
Then something barely caught Sliter’s eye from out a side window.
“It was the color yellow, a life jacket,” Sliter said. “I saw it at the last minute.”
Without hesitation, Sliter said, he changed course and locked his eyes on four people “hunched over and sitting upright” on the rocky beach of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and only partly out of the 47-degree water as a storm was building.
Floating in the water out of Sliter’s reach was the Minneapolis family’s plastic canoe, which held their truck keys, cellphones and other essentials when it was swamped in the blustery conditions.
The four, all wearing life jackets, swam 100 to 150 yards to shore and could only hope someone would see them as sunlight became increasingly in short supply.
That’s when Sliter’s ship drew near, and he radioed his Pictured Rocks Cruises office about 14 miles away in Munising, the Alger County Sheriff’s Office and the National Park Service as the winds hit gusts of 25 miles per hour at roughly 8:45 p.m.
Realizing it would be foolhardy to nudge his ship any closer to the rocky waters, Sliter kept the vessel 200 to 300 yards off shore to “let them know we were doing something” until two smaller rescue craft arrived on a lifesaving mission and brought to dry land Yonyalu Polinske, 43, and Tabithah Polinske, 47, and the two children.
“The daughter, her legs were so numb a deck hand had to carry her off the rock because she couldn’t walk,” Sliter said. “Then it started raining and the wind was still blowing.”
Sliter said he’s come across many adventurers in canoes and kayaks over the years in need of rescue on the greatest of the Great Lakes.
“I’m so happy I saw them,” he said, pointing out that people usually aren’t out that late on the lake. “I don’t know if they would have been alive the next morning.”
The Polinskes and the two children, the couple’s 7-year-old daughter and her slightly younger close friend, were picked up by a private pontoon that stands on call for such responses, accompanied by a Sheriff’s Office boat, and taken to a nearby hospital.
Sheriff’s Capt. Matt Waldron, who was among the rescuers who went to shore, sized up the family’s chances of survival overnight and said, “I highly doubt it. At the least, I suspect the young kids would have succumbed to the elements. ... There was probably no middle ground. They either were going to be rescued or we never would have found them alive.”
Sliter caught up with them a few hours later. He said Tabithah Polinske needed hours of care for hypothermia, while Yonyalu Polinske had a “cut lower leg down to the shin and had to have stitches.” The kids, a boy and a girl, seemed fine, he said.
Sheriff Todd Brock said the weather “was warm and calm for most of the day. Then all of a sudden we got a strong south wind ... and storms blew in.”
Brock said that the area is very popular for kayaking and canoeing, and his rescue teams stay busy all season long.
“We’re very happy and excited that all four were rescued, especially the young ones,” the sheriff said, adding that rescue efforts at times don’t turn out as well.
Sliter said that as each day’s travels on the big lake near an end, “in the back of my head, I try to know where people are just in case a storm comes up. ... If I hadn’t seen them, probably the next time anyone would have passed them would have been 10 in the morning.”
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482