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'Really proud of her': How a Sault girl endured 29 hours cold and alone

In exclusive interview with SooToday, dad of 11-year-old girl shares new details about how his daughter got lost — and how she survived while rescuers worked frantically to find her

SAULT STE. MARIE — For 29 excruciating hours, Ruby Kerr’s family and friends experienced every possible emotion, from crippling fear to indescribable relief. Now that he’s had a few days to process what transpired — and talk to his daughter about her night all alone in the forest — Ruby’s father feels something else: pride and amazement.

“She did things that most 30-year-olds would not have thought of,” Ivan Kerr says. “The fact her instincts went into finding shelter, water and food — that’s really part of the whole miracle that makes me really proud of her.”

People across Sault Ste. Marie will long remember the story of Ruby Kerr, the 11-year-old girl whose sudden disappearance from St. Kateri Outdoor Learning Centre on May 12 triggered a frantic search-and-rescue operation. As Friday night turned into Saturday morning, the whole city held its collective breath for the missing child, desperate for the happy ending that eventually unfolded.

When an OPP helicopter finally delivered Ruby to her family on Saturday afternoon, SooToday was there to record the tearful reunion.

“I must have watched it 100 times,” Ivan says of the heartwarming footage. “To see it outside of the moment made me realize the emotions that were tied up into that. It’s sheer joy.”

Thousands of others have watched that video, too. But the big part of the story that hasn’t been told — until now — is what Ruby personally experienced in the woods between her separation at 11 a.m. Friday and her rescue at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Ruby’s father agreed to share some of those details in an exclusive interview with SooToday. “I want to be able to provide closure to this situation for other parents who are going through this with us, and members of the community who are scared and concerned,” he says. “I think this is the best outlet for that.”

A Grade 6 student at Holy Cross elementary, Ruby is enrolled in the Outdoor Learning Program, a unique initiative of the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board that focuses on Indigenous perspectives and land-based teachings. The program consists of a morning session at St. Kateri, located at the north end of Goulais Avenue, followed by an in-class session in the afternoon.

Ivan confirms that the day before Ruby went missing, she had ventured beyond the outdoor playing borders for a period of time while the class was playing a manhunt-type game. He says she reached the St. Kateri sign on Goulais Avenue before eventually making her way back to the learning centre.

“On the ride home, we had briefly gone over it with her, and [my wife] Jen said the things a mom would normally say: ‘Stay with the group’ and ‘You need to be more careful,’” Ivan recalls.

Despite the brief scare, nothing could have prepared them for what happened the next day.

“They had done a manhunt kind of game [on Friday], and Ruby was hiding,” Ivan explains. “I guess she had been spotted, and Ruby’s quite a competitive person, so she turned around and ran as far and fast as she could — well beyond the predetermined borders the teachers had set out.”

According to Ivan, Ruby ended up scratching her legs while running through some sharp brush. When she finally stopped and felt safe from being caught in the game, she realized there was a significant amount of bramble to walk through again.

Attempting to find a different route back to St. Kateri to avoid enduring more scratches, Ruby soon became lost.

“I don’t really know why she kept walking,” Ivan says. “She’s competitive and I guess she wanted to rescue herself. She just kept going, she had fallen, and then just got more and more turned around.”

When the instructors blew the whistle to call the students in, they quickly realized Ruby was not there. They immediately called police.

“I think she was convinced she’d be able to find her own way out, which is why she didn’t just sit and stop,” her dad says. “If she had just sat down and realized she was lost, they likely would have found her that first day. But she kept walking.”

“It eventually got to the point where she realized she had been gone a long time and couldn’t find her way back,” he continued. “Now what?”

Having lived in Barrie, Calgary, Saskatoon, and now the Sault, Ruby’s father considers his family to be city people. Which is why he is so impressed with all the quick thinking his daughter did — even though she was alone in the darkness and wearing just shorts and a T-shirt.

“Over the course of her time in the brush, she had stepped into a lake and didn’t realize how deep it was, and the water had gone up to her chest,” her dad says. “She had something to drink, then climbed out.”

“As she was walking, she found an abandoned RV in the woods, but it was locked,” he continues. “She searched around and found a hammer and actually broke the window. She said it was so gross and dirty inside that she was scared to sleep in there.”

As she kept walking, Ruby saw a moose, Ivan says. “She thought it was a bear at first so she was trying to walk through the bush instead of staying in just one place to avoid it,” he says. “Then she saw the antlers and discovered it was a moose. She saw a bunch of other wildlife like owls and beavers, too.”

At one point, Ivan says Ruby caught a frog. “She had a little pin on her shirt, and she said she was going to use that to kill the frog and maybe try to pull its arms and legs and eat those,” he says. “But she said she felt too bad to eat it.”

Ruby would not have known it at the time, but what she did next helped lead to her eventual rescue: she laid down to rest near an ATV path.

“Because she was wet and cold, she had taken her socks and shoes off and wrung her socks out as best she could,” Ivan says. “Then she took birch bark and stuffed it into her shoes to try and help absorb some of the water. I don’t know where she learned that.”

“At night, she didn’t want to cover herself with anything because she wanted someone to find her, so she decided to lay next to the ATV path in case people were driving by,” he continues. “She slept in the dirt and mud. She’s not a fan of the dark — she has LED lights in her room — so that was the hardest part for her.”

According to Environment Canada, the temperature dipped to a low of 5 degrees Celsius early that early Saturday morning, May 13. 

“She stretched her T-shirt out and tucked her knees up against her chest in that recovery position to preserve heat,” Ivan says. “She said she was mostly cold because she was wet. She didn’t really have a good way to warm herself other than curling up into a ball. She slept maybe for several hours.”

Throughout the duration of Ruby’s disappearance, her father says she had no idea people were desperately trying to find her, calling out her name countless times. Ivan also says his daughter never heard a helicopter flying overhead and never saw a drone beaming its bright light into the forest.

By late Saturday morning, the search had been active for a full 24 hours. People across Sault Ste. Marie were glued to their phones, anxious for any piece of good news. Lincoln Louttit, a spokesman for the city police force, said callers were “inundating” the 911 system, demanding to know why an Amber Alert was not issued. (Amber Alerts are utilized only in rare cases of child abductions, and there was no evidence to suggest that Ruby had been taken).

In the end, it was a small footprint on the ground that cracked open the mystery.

Early Saturday afternoon, the father of one of Ruby’s Sault United soccer teammates had gone out on his ATV to search for her. While riding in the Maki Road area, the parent discovered a footprint on the trail. He snapped a photo of the marking and sent it to police.

“The detective on Saturday said he needed to know the make of her shoe and the size because they had found this footprint about eight kilometres from St. Kateri,” Kerr recalls. “I happened to have a picture of my girls at a Bushplane event last week, and Ruby was wearing those same shoes — and the bottom of her shoes were in the picture.”

“I sent those pictures to the officer, and they were able to confirm the patterns were identical.”

Dispatched to that specific area, an OPP helicopter flying overhead spotted Ruby within 30 minutes. She was nine kilometres north of St. Kateri.

“There was this ATV trail and some clearings for these power windmills,” Kerr explains. “She heard the helicopter flying over and she waved to them. They landed about 30 feet away and she had gone over to them.”

“When the pilot came out, he said: ‘Hey, are you okay? We’ve been looking for you.’ And she said that was such a relief for her. She didn’t see anyone the whole time, but someone was looking for her.”

Within minutes, Ivan and Jennifer watched in tears as the helicopter carrying their middle child landed on the field in front of St. Kateri. By that point, she had been gone for nearly 30 hours.

“We wanted to run to the helicopter but we had to wait a minute,” he says. “That was the longest wait — just standing there. She was waving from the window, and you just wanted to hold her.”

Paramedics took Ruby to the hospital shortly before 5 p.m., where she stayed overnight for observation before being released early Sunday afternoon.

“On Saturday at the hospital, she kept saying she was so hungry,” Ivan says. “So for her first meal, she asked for a 10-pack of McNuggets, a large fry, and a Sprite. I went and got it for her, picturing she’d probably only eat a couple bites, but she downed the whole thing. She’s not a huge McDonald’s person, but that’s what she wanted.”

In addition to the tireless efforts made by Sault Police, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Ontario Provincial Police K-9 team, and Sault Search and Rescue, the Kerr family says they are grateful to many others: the paramedics, Sault Fire officials who prepared food for them, the staff at Aurora’s who provided them with free meals, local churches who prayed for them, and the many friends, family, school board staff — and complete strangers — who supported them throughout their terrifying ordeal.

“I can’t think of another place that I’ve lived that would have done what the Sault, the community, and all those services did for us,” Ivan says. “Just knowing there were complete strangers out there praying for us and for Ruby gave us a huge sense of calm that things were going to work out.”

Today, Ruby is resting in southern Ontario with her mom, Jennifer, her sisters Charlotte and Georgia, and other relatives.

“I’m encouraging Ruby that, when she’s ready, to write down her experience,” her dad says. “It would be really impactful for people to hear her story.”


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Alex Flood

About the Author: Alex Flood

Alex is a recent graduate from the College of Sports Media where he discovered his passion for reporting and broadcasting
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