CHIMACUM — Mark O’Neill and his fellow park ranger John Bowie went out paddling on Lake Crescent one day — “just paddling. It wasn’t on work time,” Bowie recalled.
He remembered, too, that O’Neill “was beside himself. He’d met Karin,” the woman he would later marry.
O’Neill, who started work at Olympic National Park in 1996 and retired in 2016, had the grace and strength of a fish in the water, Bowie said.
A diver and boatsman who led many rescue and recovery missions, O’Neill was also known as a supervisor who stood up for — and worked in the field with — his crew.
O’Neill, 67, took a trip last month to Yellowstone National Park’s Shoshone Lake with his brother, Kim Crumbo.
A relative reported them overdue on Sept. 19; O’Neill’s body was found the next day on the lake’s eastern shore.
Hypothermia was the cause of death, park officials said Wednesday.
A search is ongoing for Crumbo, 74, a former Navy SEAL.
Karin Lowrie, O’Neill’s wife of nine years, traveled to Jackson, Wyo., earlier this week to say goodbye.
She shared her memories of the one she called her “warm, water man.”
They had met briefly many years ago when Lowrie was a schoolteacher in Forks and O’Neill’s son Cameron, now 29, was a student in her third-grade classroom. Then, in 2010, they met again, and began their romance.
On Dec. 29, 2010, O’Neill and Lowrie were in a car wreck on an icy Montana road.
Lowrie was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with injuries that included a broken pelvis.
O’Neill was injured — “he was hurting so badly. But I was the focus,” Lowrie said.
Hospital staff wrote “Karin’s friend” on the whiteboard in her room along with O’Neill’s phone number.
“He erased ‘friend’ and wrote ‘fiancé,’” she recalled.
O’Neill had asked her to marry him back in the emergency room.
“There was trauma at the beginning,” said Lowrie; “that accident glued us. We said: ‘If we can get through this, we can get through anything.’ So I go to that place and remember.
“It takes me to my knees. I just remember the love he had.”
When they were first married, they lived in a cabin on Marrowstone Island — a place O’Neill fell in love with, Lowrie said, since it was surrounded by water. By the time he retired from the National Park Service, they wanted more space, so they bought 5 wooded acres in Chimacum.
O’Neill often told her how much he loved their new place.
Yet “he really was part of the wild,” Lowrie said.
O’Neill loved rivers, lakes and the sea; he was their student.
“He was most connected when he was in the wild,” Lowrie said. “I knew that. I would never say no.”
O’Neill, who worked at Nez Perce National Historical Park and Grand Canyon National Park before coming to Olympic, was the epitome of a ranger, said his former ONP colleague Mike Danisiewicz.
He recalled responding to a late-night call some 11 years ago about an illegal cabin near Royal Basin. Danisiewicz and O’Neill hiked in 4 miles and found the structure’s smoldering remains and a man who had taken his own life.
“We had to get the body out. We did have a helicopter available,” Danisiewicz said.
Using that helicopter would have been not only costly but also perilous in the thick foliage.
“Mark carried the body out to our waiting vehicle,” Danisiewicz said.
“He was always there to do what he could do in a rescue.”
The two men had faced another tragedy in November 2006. They came to the scene of a drowning on the Sol Duc River, which was at flood stage and running fast from a recent storm. The victim was entangled in a log jam.
“O’Neill and Danisiewicz, under extremely dangerous conditions, were able to launch their Zodiac boat and make their way to the log jam and recover the victim … [They] acted in a very courageous and professional manner without regard to themselves,” according to the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office commendation.
“Mark was extremely competent in ranger skills. He took a lot of pride in being the best he could … He had amazing water skills,” Danisiewicz said.
It is hard, he added, for those who worked with O’Neill to hear what happened at Yellowstone.
“We’re all struggling,” he said.
“He was an old-school ranger’s ranger. He’d get out there and do it,” added Robert Steelquist, who worked with O’Neill on National Olympic Coast Marine Sanctuary beach cleanups in the late 1990s.
“He gave a lot of credit to the volunteers,” Steelquist recalled. “I remember how warm and supportive Mark was … he was a joy to be around.”
Bowie likewise remembers O’Neill as a steadfast fellow ranger and boss.
“If you reached out to him as an employee, he would go to bat for you … He ground his teeth a lot about administration,” Bowie said.
“The one thing he really instilled in people: He’ll do anything he can do for you — but never lie to him. Be a straight shooter, and he’ll back you up as best as he can.”
Bowie added he believes that, in Lowrie, O’Neill found a soul mate. He hopes his friend enjoyed the years following his retirement.
Lowrie said she still feels her husband’s strength.
“He just took care of me,” she said.
“I’m very grateful for his love.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]