‘He belonged to the wild’

Family, friends mourn an ‘environmental warrior’

Laura Jean Schneider ljschneider@ptleader.com
Posted 9/30/21

 

He was giddy as a child when Karin Lowrie last saw her husband alive.

Mark Crumbo O’Neill had left his home in Chimacum and was bound for Ogden, Utah to pick up his big brother for …

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‘He belonged to the wild’

Family, friends mourn an ‘environmental warrior’

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He was giddy as a child when Karin Lowrie last saw her husband alive.

Mark Crumbo O’Neill had left his home in Chimacum and was bound for Ogden, Utah to pick up his big brother for an adventure three years in the planning.

“I have memory of Mark leaving the house to take the journey,” she said.

“He was like a little boy going home,” and he had this sparkle about him, she added. “I delighted in his excitement.”

Crumbo O’Neill, 67, would be returning to Shoshone Lake, on the southwest side of Yellowstone National Park’s West Thumb area, to retrace a journey he’d completed solo.

“Karin, you wouldn’t have liked it,” he’d told Lowrie after his trip; she admitted to being less comfortable in the backwoods than her spouse. But he’d described the experience as “beautiful, magical,” and he was elated to be making the trek again.

There was no better partner for the backcountry expedition than Kim Crumbo, his older half brother. (Mark Crumbo had added his birth father’s surname, O’Neill, after finding his father.)

“Mark and Kim grew up in the wild,” Lowrie said, who referred to the pair as “the boys.” 

“They loved the idea of being in nature.”

Crumbo O’Neill’s older brother, Keith Crumbo, agreed.

“Mark was adventurous from an early age,” he wrote. “When he was just able to walk he would go out the front door and investigate the neighborhood. We would get calls from our neighbors wondering if Mark was missing. That happened more than once.

“I think exploring was in his DNA.” 

BOND OF BROTHERHOOD

Like many younger brothers, Crumbo O’Neill looked up to his brother Kim, especially in awe of his years as a Navy SEAL who served two tours in Vietnam.

“He was looking forward to spending more time with Kim in a place they both loved,” Lowrie said. “They loved each other.”

Her husband made it to Utah for the weekend of Sept. 11 and Sept. 12, and he called Lowrie to tell her they planned on putting in the boat that Monday, and that he loved her. With a backcountry permit that allowed four overnights, they would be back to the boat lunch by Friday.

When Crumbo O’Neill didn’t call on Saturday, Lowrie wasn’t concerned; she knew reception was probably spotty.

When she hadn’t heard anything by Sunday morning, she reached out to Crumbo’s wife, Becky, in Utah. But Becky hadn’t heard anything from her husband, either.

That’s when Lowrie called Yellowstone Park rangers to check up on “the boys.”

She was told their truck was still parked at the dock.

A  MYSTERIOUS TRAGEDY

After park rangers found the deserted truck, they sent a crew out afoot to examine the brothers’ last campsite.

“The family is all interlinked with the National Park Service,” Lowrie said, and soon Yellowstone was flooded with calls from friends and family with local connections, including Crumbo O’Neill’s son, Cameron.

On Sunday, Sept. 19, searchers located some of the brothers’ gear at a vacant campsite on the south side of Shoshone Lake.

A canoe, a single paddle, and a personal floatation device, along with some personal belongings, were found on the east shore.

The next morning, Crumbo O’Neill was found on the east shore of the lake, where he had succumbed to exposure.

His brother was nowhere to be seen.

The effort to locate Crumbo moved from rescue search to a recovery operation last Friday.

“The environment is losing two of its warriors,” Lowrie, said her voice breaking.

“We’re just reeling at this,” she said, expressing what her family is going through. She’s heard a lot of different theories about the accident, but her gut feeling is that the brothers were “caught in something very ugly,” or “caught off-guard.”

She said she knows her husband would have never left his brother under any but the most dire circumstances.

“I really feel they were trying to help each other,” she said.

Crumbo O’Neill was found with a life jacket. Because of his location from camp, Lowrie feels he was trying to get back to her.

A LIFETIME OF EXPERIENCE

“Mark was a stickler, stickler, on safety,” Lowrie said.

His twin sister, Toni Kelly, from Dolores, Colorado wrote, “Mark was all things water.”

She recounted an extensive history of federal service and water experience. In 1967, he got his skipper’s license, apparently one of the youngest people to do so. He played water polo, swam competitively, surfed, lifeguarded, and guided commercial river trips. Crumbo O’Neill was also a Grand Canyon River Ranger, and a border patrolman for two years in California. When he moved to Washington, his final career was as East District Ranger for Olympic National Park, where he often dove in Crescent Lake.

“The water and Mark were very good friends,” Lowrie said.

Both brothers were extremely capable outdoorsmen. Their river community has told Lowrie time and again that these were the folks they’d want at their side if something went down.

“They were both excellent boatman,” she said.

Lowrie isn’t sure if either of the men were carrying a GPS device. She knew that her husband used to have one on a boat he’d sold previous to the trip.

“I married Mark knowing part of him belonged in the wild,” she said, adding that she would never have tried to stop him from doing what he loved.

SOMETHING GREATER

Crumbo O’Neill was no stranger to search-and-rescues himself.

“He did a lot of searches and recoveries,” Lowrie said, during his time working for the Park Service.

He had a sense of strength that came from an internal reservoir that she relied on, she said softly.

“He’d seen a lot of trauma in life.”

Once, the couple was on the Missouri River in a canoe when 60-mile-per-hour winds came out of nowhere.

“I was mortified, scared,” she said.

“He got real calm, focused, real clear. I used him as a beacon to tell me what to do. Without him, I wouldn’t have made it.”

“Mark was my warrior,” she added.

An inner connection to something greater than himself made Crumbo O’Neill a “deeply loving,” dedicated, loyal, steward of the wilderness.

He was observant and calm, Lowrie said. He loved his neighbors. He made a point to reach out in small ways.

Lawrence Johnson, CEO of Carl’s Building Supply in Port Hadlock, wrote of his dear friend, “He was the strongest, toughest man I have ever seen! Tender, loving husband … strong, capable man.”

In an email, Chimacum neighbors Helen Shewman and Larry Sammons wrote, “Mark from the beginning got to know everyone on our street and was always reaching out to them to see if he could help in any way. We will miss him terribly and his absence from our neighborhood is a profound loss to all of us.”

“If you were Mark’s friend, you knew it,” Lowrie said. “How do you describe a person so beautiful and so big?”

DRAWN TO NATURE

Recently, Lowrie and her husband purchased 5 acres in Chimacum so Crumbo O’Neill could connect more with nature than he’d felt able to on Marrowstone Island, where the couple lived in a cabin they remodeled together after their marriage in 2012.

“I was actually his son’s teacher in Forks,” she said, when they were married to other partners.

Years later, when they were both single, they bumped into each other in Port Townsend, and the connection was immediate.

Their wedding took place on a remote beach in Canada on Dec. 29, 2012. Their parents and children were hauled in for an intimate ceremony.

“Leave it to Mark to find the perfect spot in winter to get married,” she said, laughing.

Lowrie wore a white sleeveless gown; the sun broke open above them.

It was perfect, she said.

EMBRACED BY FAMILY

Right now, it’s a day at a time, for Lowrie.

“Trying to breathe, loving my family,” she said, “seeing the precious moments, letting go of the things that are not important.”

She’s taking leave from Chimacum Elementary School, where she works as a fifth-grade teacher. Her two daughters, Brynne Kosjerina and Megan Gambill, from her previous marriage, are a comfort. And a
2-year-old grandson and the promise of a baby on the way, helps.

“There is present joy wrapping around me,” she said.

The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Chimacum is her church family, and the pastor and congregation have offered prayers and support.

As of Monday, Sept. 27, Lowrie was headed to Yellowstone to  bring her husband’s ashes home. When she returns, she already knows what she’ll do.

“His goal when he got back was to catalogue the trees,” she said, adding that he’d intended to document every tree on their acreage. “He loved his trees,” she said. “I’m going to carry that out.”

“I’m going to sit with him, and walk around his trees,” she said with surety.

“I loved my husband,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “I would never tell Mark that he couldn’t do something.  To do so would [be] to cage his beauty and purpose.”

Lowrie penned a story about how her husband had once jumped into a whirlpool, a thought that terrified her.

But his response was, “You relax. Let the water carry you. Accept it. It took me down and carried me out.”  

“I hold that vision of Mark as I come to terms with his last moments,” she wrote.

“From some details I have been given, I know in my heart that he was trying to get back to us. I love him for that. I wanted that. However, it was not to be.

“My hope is that he ‘relaxed, accepted it’ and let the water that he was one with carry him home into God’s arms. I will see him again.” 

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