You’re on the beach with your youngest child while your older child splashes in the shallow water, floating on an inflatable toucan.
He’s following all the water-safety rules you set before you let him into the lake and is accompanied by an older friend. Except for a little wind, it’s a perfect day at the beach.
Until all of sudden it’s not.
Last year on the May long weekend Cassius Cowles, who was 8 at the time, and Hollis Babich, who was 12, flipped their toucan while they were playing at Wasa Lake, and the wind and waves carried it off.
After making sure Cassius was in shallow enough water that he could head back to shore, Hollis turned and went to retrieve their raft.
“I tried to get back to shore but the wind blew me right off the side (of the sandbar) ’cause I was right on the very side and I fell into the deep water,” Cassius said. “I was trying to swim out. I was super scared and freaking out.”
Too far away to help, his mother Jen said: “Once he realized he couldn’t touch and the fear set in, he just dropped.”
“It was the worst feeling in my entire life,” she said. “I thought my kid was going to die. I thought: ‘for sure this is a drowning incident. He’s drowning right now.’ It was really bad.”
“Terrified and helpless” Jen and her partner Barrett watched from the shore and tried not to make the situation worse by panicking.
They watched Cassius bobbing and flailing and struggling for air, hoping against hope that Hollis would save their son.
At first Hollis didn’t know what was happening.
“I didn’t quite hear him. I didn’t quite see him at first because he was under. I thought he was on the sandbar or like walked back to his parents. So I just kept swimming after the (floaty) and then I heard him shout ‘help’ again and I looked back and he was just barely above the water so I swam back and helped him.”
Hollis said he doesn’t remember how he felt when he saw that Cassius was in trouble.
“I wasn’t really thinking much.”
Instinctively, he grabbed Cassius out of the deep spot and brought the younger boy to safety.
“He just picked me up and then took me to the sandbar… and then I calmed down a little,” Cassius said. “I sprinted all the way across the beach and got mom and dad… I told them that I almost drowned and Hollis saved my life and then I laid on my towel for like half an hour.”
In March of 2019 Hollis received a bravery award from the Lifesaving Society and the George A. Brown Memorial award for a courageous rescue by a pre-teen.
He received two medals for his courage, one of which he pinned on Cassius’ shirt for a photo as the interview devolved into a riotous game with the boys using their chairs as shields.
“I still kind of deny that it was a super big deal. I think I did a good job and I saved him but…I just helped him. Like I helped a friend,” Hollis said. “I hope anyone else would do that.”
Jen respectfully disagrees with his modesty. To her and to her boys, humble Hollis is their champion.
“Hollis, if you weren’t right there and heard him, he would have drowned. We would have been doing CPR on the beach,” she said.
As the boys returned to their games, Jen said: “I’m really happy that he got an award for it. He deserves more than an award.”
As for Cassius, although he was nervous swimming for the rest of the last summer, he is ready to jump in again this year.
“I will never give up on going on the diving board at Fairmont,” he said, adding that he wants to try scuba diving some day.
Jen said there isn’t much she could have changed about that day besides having Cassius wear a life jacket, which didn’t seem necessary in the shallow water.
“Of all the little droppy holes in the whole lake, they found it,” she said. “Of all the spots in that shallow little lake.”
Hollis, who thinks he’d like to become a lifeguard, passed along the lessons he learned from the experience.
“Keep your eyes on the smaller ones that you know can’t swim super great,” he said.
Cassius agreed. “That’s probably the best advice.”
Then Hollis continued: “If something’s happening, it’s a lot more important than a floaty. You can always get another one.”
Tips from the Lifesaving Society
According to the Lifesaving Society, in Canada drowning is the second-highest cause of preventable deaths of those under 10 years old.
Drowning prevention tips from the Lifesaving Society include: learning to swim; always swimming with a buddy; putting lifejackets on toddlers and keeping them within arms’ reach; setting rules that children must follow to be allowed to swim; and taking lifesaving and first-aid training.
For the society’s detailed recommendations, visit: www.lifesaving.bc.ca/watersmart-tips.