BORDEN-CARLETON, P.E.I. – It was shortly after noon when Cali Bruce’s white swimming cap crested the horizon on the Northumberland Strait, in view only to the longest of camera lenses and binoculars.
Moments earlier, a worried mother and father sprinted across wet rocks and seaweed to get a better glimpse of their daughter, but she was nowhere in sight.
“Is that Cali? I think that’s her,” her father, Colin, shouted.
Another family member checked his phone, with Cali’s GPS tracker pinging on a map.
“No, I don’t think so.”
Like a dog catching a scent, Colin sprinted off under the Confederation Bridge and ran into the water. Pointing to a red-shirted kayaker and a white cap, he’d spotted his daughter.
“Let’s go Cali! You can do this, Cali, let’s go!”
Swinging arm over arm, the 14-year-old swimmer was going all-in with the Prince Edward Island shoreline in close sight. With a choppy surf and aggressive current, Cali struggled for every inch.
Minutes passed before she reached a plateau in the water. She could touch bottom as her father sprinted out to meet her. The two embraced, putting an end to the nervousness and uncertainty. She’d made it.
After more than six hours in the water, fighting tense currents and cold temperatures, Cali became the youngest swimmer ever to cross the Northumberland Strait.
“I could hear my dad yelling out to me,” Cali said after reaching the finish line, with a smile on her face and a thermal blanket wrapped around her shivering shoulders. “At that point I was just thinking, ‘Be quiet, Dad. Let me do my thing.’”
Cali was one of 49 swimmers to take to the saltwater at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, alongside her swimming partner, Jenna Stubbert, for the Big Swim, a fundraiser in support of Camp Brigadoon. Of the entire pack, six pulled themselves from the water due to hypothermia and exhaustion, including 17-year-old Stubbert.
Forging on despite the cold, Cali made it to the halfway point before encountering trouble. She emerged from bad waves before being sucked into a current pulling her towards the bridge.
“At that point I was thinking about how nice it would be to just give up,” she said. “But I kept going and kept pushing it.”
A pair of kayakers guided her away from the pillars of the bridge; setting the line she’d take to the finish.
After touching bottom near the beach, Cali still had to walk the remaining kilometre to the finish line, a daunting task for a set of waterlogged limbs.
“I though we’d just reach the shore, touch a buoy and that would be it,” she said. “The walk felt a lot longer than it actually was.”
Not lost on the occasion was the reason behind it all – a 15-year-old boy with a passion for swimming and a disease that took him from the water and the world too soon.
“I thought about Kevin a few times out there,” Cali said about her cousin. “I tried not to think about anything at all, and just be in my own world, but he crossed my mind a few times.”
Cali shared a lot of memories with Kevin, and owed him a lot of credit on Sunday. After all, he was the one who taught her to swim in the freezing cold waters off his Cape Breton home.
“I’m proud. Just proud,” Colin said, looking over at Cali after the swim. “I’ve learned never to doubt her. When she wants to do something, when she really thinks she can do it, she will do it.”
Cali’s fundraising totals skyrocketed to just shy of $12,000, courtesy of a $5,000 donation coming from a single donor just before the swim.
“She’s a special young girl,” her mother, Laura, said. “Both my kids have kind-hearted souls. Both of them have never feared from anything difficult.”
Not out of the saltwater for an hour, and Cali was already looking ahead to her next swim.
“I’ll be back in the pool in a few weeks for the start of the season,” she said, with a slight eye-roll.
“And I think I’ll be back here again next year.”