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In the distance, a flashing light appeared in the dark on Lake Superior.

Minutes earlier, ship Capt. Joe Walters had heard the urgent marine message — people were possibly overboard between Madeline and Michigan islands, about 2 miles away.

Little did he know that a mother, father and three children had launched their 13 ½-foot, open-top tandem kayak about 1 p.m. Thursday to paddle to Michigan Island, about 4 miles away. Three hours later, the kayak capsized between Stockton and Michigan islands, authorities say.

As Walters began searching the cold, dark water, a crew member spotted the light. He steered toward it and eventually to a woman in the water. She was alone, gasping and hypothermic.

Walters' crew pulled the woman, Cari Mews-Fryman, 29, of Loyal, Wis., to safety. After the kayak had capsized, her husband, Eric Fryman, 39, had gathered up the three kids — Kyra, 9; Annaliese, 5, and Jansen, 3. They'd swum toward Michigan Island while Cari returned to the kayak to retrieve an emergency bag. She grabbed a cellphone and flashlight and swam to try to catch up with the family.

Within 15 to 20 minutes, the waves of Lake Superior separated her from them. Then she lost sight of them, said Ashland County Sheriff Mick Brennan. "She could hear them yelling. She thought they were on shore," he said.

But they hadn't made it. Their bodies were recovered hours later.

The couple had been married for a year, but had been together for about nine years, Bobi Mews, Cari's sister, said Friday night.

They all loved kayaking at the family's Wisconsin lake cabin. Mews said her sister's family had kayaked on Lake Superior before.

But Bobi Mews knew there was trouble Thursday when she got a text from her sister about 8 p.m. — "911" and "Michigan Island." Bobi's family called authorities.

The Coast Guard received the distress call about 8:45 p.m. and launched a small boat from Bayfield and a helicopter from Traverse City, Mich., said Coast Guard Lt. Daniel Peters. An emergency information message was sent to local mariners.

That was the message Walters heard on his ship about 9:20. By 10 p.m., he had rescued the woman, who was gripping the flashlight, too cold to speak.

His crew, along with other search teams, scoured the area for the father and children.

Eventually Walters got word that a child's body had been recovered. He brought the mother to shore. The bodies of the father, the 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son were found after midnight.

The search for Kyra continued, although overnight thunderstorms made things more difficult. Her body was found about 10 a.m. Friday by the National Park Service.

The tragedy is unimaginable, Walters said. "Her entire family was just erased," he said. "And if she didn't have that flashlight, I don't think we would have ever seen her. It was black dark."

Bobi Mews hasn't been able to talk much to her sister about what happened. Cari is in shock, she said. "Now it's hitting her pretty hard," Mews said. "She's trying to be strong."

Mews described Kyra, the oldest child, as someone who loved to be on the water, whether kayaking, tubing or skiing.

Annaliese was a spitfire, her aunt said, a girl who would come in to shore on her kneeboard, let go of the rope and wave to everyone before she grabbed the rope again. "She was gutsy," Mews said.

And Jansen loved turtles and sitting alongside his grandpa, she said.

The children likely had little chance on unforgiving Lake Superior. In someone without a wet suit, hypothermia can set in within 30 to 60 minutes in the 60-degree water this time of year, said Scott Kluver, part owner of Trek and Trail, a kayaking tour company in Bayfield.

It's difficult to say what led the kayak to overturn, Kluver said. Conditions can change quickly on the big lake. "You can get blown off course or conditions can push you beyond your abilities," he said.

Cari was fully clothed when Walters found her in the water. The children were wearing only swimsuits; her husband wore pants, but no shirt. They all wore life jackets.

"I think hypothermia was a huge factor [in their deaths], especially for the children," Coast Guard Lt. Peters said.

Staff writer Liz Sawyer contributed to this report. 612-673-4788