Sheilah Sweatman was born in Winnipeg on Feb. 8, 1982, the third child of Wynn and Teddi Sweatman. Ever since Sheilah was a little girl, the Sweatman family has been frequenting their cottage at Lake of the Woods, a large body of water dotted with thousands of islands that straddles the Minnesota, Manitoba and Ontario borders. It was Sheilah’s favourite place. “I believe her heart lies at Lake of the Woods,” says her older sister Megan.
When Sheilah was three, Wynn remembers her hammering nails into the deck at their cottage. “All the other kids could walk around a work site,” he says, chuckling proudly. “Not Sheilah. Even at a young age, she was a participant.”
Sheilah’s “ fiery demeanour” first surfaced when she was a little girl. At the cottage, she was always dragging massive branches and logs out of the woods to help her cousins build “the biggest and best forts,” recalls Megan, and she was “always the first one in the water.” It was Sheilah who helped teach people to swim. She was also the go-to guide in the forest and the resident expert on catching fish. “She was our guide, in more ways than one,” says Megan. “She thought of everybody else before herself. Sheilah’s heart was never full.”
Through her strength and generosity, Megan says Sheilah became “the glue” that held the family together. “She had special relationships with each of us, and she worked hard to keep those special and unique,” she says. No one was closer to Sheilah than her sister Victoria, the youngest of the five Sweatman children. They consorted regularly, plotting out future travel adventures and supporting each other in tough times. “They were the best friends in the world,” says Wynn.
After Sheilah graduated with a fine arts degree from the University of Manitoba, she moved east to become a carpenter in Bridgewater, N.S., where she became the first female carpenter to be hired on by a prominent local builder. As an artist, Sheilah worked in many media and sold artwork across Canada and the U.S. Her “signature piece” was a six-by-eight-foot work made from 500,000 jigsaw puzzle pieces. She called it Finding Me. Sheilah donated it to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba. She also spent months making personalized gifts for her family and friends. For her nephews, Sheilah made intricate wall hangings and hand-carved pull-toys. “Her love was so detailed and special,” says Megan.
Sheilah’s love of nature and her thirst for action eventually led her to Nelson, a small, picturesque community nestled in the Selkirk Mountains of southeastern British Columbia. Once there, she signed up with the B.C. Search and Rescue Association Swift Water Specialists Team, always carrying her emergency beeper even though she was just a volunteer. She also worked at the Nelson Animal Hospital, constantly taking home pets that didn’t have anywhere to go. She adopted an abandoned cat and named him Bob Dylan. In March, she took in a German shepherd named Freya, whom she wanted to train as an avalanche rescue dog.
On top of all that, Sheilah wanted to become a volunteer firefighter. Given her energy and athleticism, it’s not surprising that she was fit like a firefighter; she performed all the physical feats required to enlist. But when it came time to get suited up, there were no helmets or boots small enough to fit her—she was just five foot two. She couldn’t join the fire department as a result. “Sheilah wasn’t just disappointed, she was pissed off,” says Wynn.
On June 29, Sheilah received a search and rescue call. A 1997 Pontiac Sunfire had veered off the road and plunged into the Goat River. Even though she knew the driver had drowned in the river, Sheilah thought recovering the car would help bring closure to the victim’s family.
The Goat River was tumultuous that day, swollen with meltwater from last winter’s heavy snow. Sheilah was in a rescue boat when she slipped and fell into the water. She never surfaced. Sheilah was 29.