Christopher Michael Sheppard was born on a wet, snowy, windy morning in Bay L’Argent, Nfld., on Feb. 6, 1978, to Rupert Sheppard and Patricia “Pat” Baker, the middle of four children. (Two years later, the couple would lose their second daughter Ruby to health complications.) Pat, whose father was a deep-sea fisherman, was a homemaker. Rupert, who grew up with 14 brothers and sisters, worked, among other jobs, with CP Rail in Ontario and the Canadian Coast Guard in Newfoundland.
Toddler Chris had a shock of shaggy, dark brown hair, like his dad, and emerald green eyes, like his mom. His grin was infectious. “Chris was a bit of a rambunctious fellow,” says Rupert, “but if he couldn’t make you smile throughout the day, then girl, you had a glass jaw.” Older sister Ann-Marie, Chris, and younger brother Jamie made an inseparable trio. “They had their little toughs every now and again,” says Pat, “but one protected the other.”
The Sheppards’ early stomping grounds were in Harbour Mille, an 18th-century fishing village on Newfoundland’s southeast shore. Days after school ended, the family would pile into their bright yellow wooden boat for the 20-minute ride across Fortune Bay to the cove where their small log cabin stood. “Me and my brother would be curled in the bow of the boat with a blanket over our heads and there’d be 14-foot waves,” says Jamie. “It was lots of fun. Giggles left, right and centre.”
One winter, when Chris was 10, he and his little cousin Kyla were racing ahead of the family to play hockey on the pond seconds away from their house. The ice was thin and Kyla crashed through. Chris slid on his stomach over the ice and rescued her using his left hand, which, just four months earlier, had its middle, ring and pinkie fingers surgically reattached after an accident. He had fallen off a wharf, landing on his hand and ripping his fingers backwards.
The water wasn’t always so perilous. As a teenager, Chris and his cousin Paul would hitch a ride outside town to Sugarloaf Brook, where fresh water pooled at the base of shale cliffs. There, with the rest of the kids from the area, they’d play in the many swimming holes framed by birch, spruce and fir trees.
After high school, Chris took a heavy equipment operators’ course, learning to use bulldozers and dump trucks. In 1997, searching for a better life, the family, including cousin Paul, left for Medicine Hat, Alta. Chris settled in Redcliff, a bedroom community, and worked a series of jobs, including on oil rigs in Fort McMurray and with his dad in northern B.C. mines. In the work camps, Chris’s rollicking ways and practical jokes made him the centre of attention. “A couple years there I didn’t see him much,” says friend Matt Saville, “but when I was out working the rigs, I’d still hear his name. They’d say, ‘that crazy Chris Sheppard.’ ”
On a December night in 2000, Chris was in Paul’s garage helping him fix his truck when he met Kaylea, Paul’s wife’s sister. Chris wasn’t Kaylea’s type (“his dress clothes were torn-up jeans,” she says). But weeks later, Chris was at Kaylea’s New Year’s Eve party, where he met her parents. “The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Hi, I’m Chris. Can I marry your daughter?’ ” says Kaylea. The two started dating, and on Christmas Day the following year, he proposed. They married in June 2004. “It’s the standing joke that the two cousins from Newfoundland came out here and married the two sisters from Alberta,” says Paul.
Chris and Kaylea’s home was a happy one. “You’d leave their house and your cheeks and your sides are just aching from laughing so hard,” says friend Brandon Wynn. Korri-Dawn, the couple’s first daughter, was born a year after the marriage. Gracee followed in 2008. Becoming a father completed Chris, and he was never more at peace than when at home.
On Friday, July 29, the family took their mobile home to Cavan Lake, a half-hour from Redcliff. That Saturday evening, Chris and Paul were on the shore watching Kaylea, Korri-Dawn and Gracee kayak when their boats tipped. Chris dove in to save Korri-Dawn (Gracee had a life jacket on and was with Kaylea). While swimming with her on his back, he slipped under. Korri-Dawn was rescued by another camper, but Chris could not be resuscitated when he was brought back to shore.“He went in to get his oldest girl out,” says Paul, “and he never came back.”