The Boys and the Lake: How Two Backcountry Experts Met Death in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly strides to the black-sand beach at the north end of Shoshone Lake, pausing in a beam of morning light to absorb the placid tableau. Eight thousand acres of glassy water stretch 4 miles to the lake’s far shore, where lodgepole pine crowd the hillsides. Grizzlies pad among them toward the Pitchstone Plateau.

Sholly sees the glint of damp obsidian flakes at his feet, wind-worn driftwood ashore, even the lake bottom just out from where DeLacy Creek ends its short tumble from the Continental Divide.

What he doesn’t see is any sign of Kim Crumbo, a lifelong paddler, rower and retired Grand Canyon National Park river ranger who was 74 when he disappeared here two years ago.

It is a crisp morning in August. The park is full of summer tourists. Sholly and Chris Flesch, Yellowstone’s starch-sharp chief ranger, have come to the quiet shores of Shoshone to describe, for the first time publicly, the details of Crumbo’s disappearance and the death of his 67-year-old brother Mark O’Neill, another professional waterman and retired Park Service ranger.

It seems improbable that fate would land on Kim Crumbo and Mark O’Neill on Sept. 13, 2021. “Those of us who guided in the canyon with the two half-brothers … are struggling to make sense of the loss,” former Grand Canyon guide Rebecca Lawton wrote two months later in a column for Writers on the Range. “[M]any of us have found it unfathomable that a lake could make ghosts of such men.”

Fifty-nine searchers spent 20 consecutive fall days looking for the men, who had set out on a five-day canoe trip. They found O’Neill’s body on the search’s second day, but in the 18 days that followed, not Crumbo’s.

In the face of winter, Sholly agreed Oct. 8 — a Friday — to pull teams from their wilderness sweeps. But the superintendent couldn’t rest.

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly at Shoshone Lake’s DeLacy beach in August 2023. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

“I don’t dream a whole lot,” Sholly says. But that night two years ago he did. Crumbo came to him, angry that Sholly had retreated.

“It was one of those dreams that you have very rarely where you wake up and you’re like ‘That was a real conversation.’”

The next day’s dawn broke cold and messy as Sholly packed a backcountry kit. He left his quarters on Mammoth’s Officers’ Row and struck out for two days alone at Shoshone Lake, looking.

“For whatever reason,” he says. “I felt like I needed to come out here.”

‘The boys’

Crumbo and O’Neill grew up on the water. They became professional watermen and conservationists. They earned honors for their work.

Crumbo, who was a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation through his father, swam with barracuda while growing up in Hawaii as part of a military family. He became a Navy SEAL and served two tours in Vietnam, earning a Bronze Star.

In 1971, he traded the mayhem of the Mekong for the more peaceful if tumultuous Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, hiring on as the first guide at Holiday River Expeditions. The job would propel him into the National Park Service ranger corps and on to deep work in conservation. 

A decade as a river guide and 20 years with the Park Service made Crumbo part of the patina of the red rock southwest. He published a river runners’ historical guide to the Grand Canyon. Five environmental groups honored his conservation work, which included aiding the reintroduction of the endangered Mexican wolf to New Mexico and Arizona.

At the time he disappeared, Crumbo was working in Utah as wilderness coordinator for The Rewildling Institute, a New Mexico conservation group. Eight months before he vanished, he completed a 50-page report titled America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. It proposed protection of 8.4 million acres of public land in Utah and included a map showing a wildlife migration route from Arizona to Wyoming. The route had an arrow point at each end. The southern arrow pointed to the Grand Canyon. The northern arrow rested on Shoshone Lake.

Crumbo’s mother Patricia Elliott birthed his brother, Mark O’Neill, in 1954 along with a twin sister Toni.

Elliott had four sons and a daughter from three separate fathers, each of whom slipped from family life early. “They were raised as brothers,” Toni Kelly said. “Never was ‘half’ mentioned, ever.

“None of us remember our dads,” Kelly said. “It was always only mom.”

As a youth, O’Neill was an ocean lifeguard, a skipper, swimmer, surfer and diver. He grew up in Hawaii, Rhode Island, Utah and California.

Like his brother, he rowed as a river guide in the Grand Canyon in the mid 1970s and became a seasonal ranger with the Park Service there. He retired from his last federal post at Olympic National Park in 2016 after 20 years there, earning recognition for a brave river recovery as well as supportive supervision of employees.

The boys, as they were called, both had families and pursued outdoor adventure after their professional careers. O’Neill made two trips across Yellowstone’s Lewis Lake to the non-motorized Shoshone. When Crumbo had to back out of the second one, O’Neill forged on with a solo paddle. He wanted to return for a third time with his brother. “He loved Shoshone,” his wife Karin Lowrie told WyoFile. “He loved being in this remote place.”

In 2021, O’Neill and Crumbo’s reunion happened.

At about 4 a.m. on Sept. 9 that year, O’Neill left Chimacum, Washington, in his Honda Pilot. He headed for Crumbo’s home in Ogden, Utah, from where the two would go on to Lewis and Shoshone lakes, just for fun. He hauled a trailer carrying his canoe, a boat he named after a favorite place.

He called the craft ShoLew.

The gem

At 7,790 feet above sea level and tucked against the Continental Divide, Shoshone Lake is among the headwaters of the Snake-Columbia system. DeLacy, Shoshone, Cold Water and Moose creeks, fed by Pacific storms, fill its 205-foot-deep pool.

Shoshone Geyser Basin at the lake’s west end lures paddlers with its variegated mud pots and boiling pools. It’s the largest backcountry geyser basin in the park. Its fantastic fountains — Minuteman, Union, Bronze and Little Giant geysers — are among more than 50 thermal features. Narrow trails guide hikers through the basin’s fog and steam.

The Crow Tribe believe these waters are powerful and sacred, a place for vision quests. The flows began running out of Yellowstone long, long ago, according to Shoshone and Bannock tales, when the troublemaking trickster Coyote didn’t listen to Mother Earth, stepped on her basket of fish and loosed the Snake and Yellowstone rivers.

A grizzly bear swims the outlet of Shoshone Lake. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./Jackson Hole News&Giuide/WyoFile)

Shoshone Lake appeared as “a most beautiful sheet of water, set like a gem among the mountains,” government geologist Fernand Hayden wrote in 1872. It looked heart-shaped to him from his elevated and distant vantage of Craig Pass, but its outline is more like a bow tie, a dog bone or dumbbell. Its longest axis is 6.5 miles, in line with the prevailing southwest winds. It’s 4 miles across at its widest, 660 yards across at its waist — The Narrows.

Shoshone is the largest backcountry lake in the Lower 48, Yellowstone says. No roads mar its shores, no motors spoil its silence. A visit requires an expedition. Cell phones don’t work here.

Wilderness venturers spend days camping at some of the 23 sites along its 28-mile shore, each having a primitive latrine and a high cross-timber to hang food out of bears’ 9-foot reach.

Shoshone attracts flotillas of youth groups whose members plan and prepare, then steel themselves against a million mosquitoes as they flay the waters with their fly lines.

Gem as it may be, Shoshone has sharp edges. Before Crumbo and O’Neill’s trip, at least eight people had drowned or died of hypothermia in its chilly waters. Each story is terrifying — men and boys fighting swamping seas and wind. The body of one Shoshone boater, a Casper man lost in 1958, has never been recovered.

Yellowstone rangers count one of their own among the victims. Ryan Weltman, a 22-year-old seasonal ranger, was paddling on patrol in 1994 when waves overwhelmed his kayak.

“The way the lake’s laid out — from the southwest to northeast — that’s going to catch your prevailing winds,” Flesch said. They rake a six-mile fetch, building swells and whitecaps.

Shoshone and Lewis Lakes. (Diane Kaup-Benefiel/WyoFile)

“Waves of 3 to 4 feet are common,” a park boating safety brochure reads. “Travel close to shore and in areas protected from wind. Cross only at the Narrows … make any open water crossings in the early morning before winds pick up (around 10 a.m.).”

One danger of such a crossing, should it come to ruin, is hypothermia and subsequent drowning. Shocked by a cold, high-altitude lake, “the brain becomes confused and disoriented, and your arms and legs become numb,” within as few as five minutes the brochure says. Splash gear provides little insulation during immersion. “If you’re not equipped in a dry suit or a wetsuit or something like that, you’re not going to have a lot of time under ideal conditions, let alone inclement conditions,” Fresch said.

Most canoe paddlers, however, don’t dress in dry- or wetsuits on Shoshone Lake. Searchers didn’t find any cold-water protective gear among the brothers’ possessions.

To the park

Crumbo and O’Neill left Ogden on a Sunday, pausing for gas in Jackson Hole, where O’Neill called his wife Karin Lowrie.

“He was light and excited,” she said. “He was in his element … heading into nature with his big brother whom he loved and admired so much.”

The men drove on to Yellowstone’s Lewis Lake Ranger Station and campground. They would collect their four-night backcountry permit, which was to start the next day, Sept. 13. It came with warnings about all the park’s hazards — grizzly bears, boiling pools, cold, open water and high winds. They planned to paddle 4 miles across Lewis Lake and up the Lewis River Channel toward Shoshone. They would slog 2 miles farther up the channel, dragging the ShoLew behind.

At Shoshone, they would paddle west along the south shore toward their first night’s camp. From there they had sites reserved for three more nights.

A youth group paddles toward the outlet of Shoshone Lake. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

The Sunday afternoon they arrived, however, they found the popular 84-site roadside Lewis Lake Campground full. Although their backcountry permit wasn’t valid until the next night, weather favored a launch.

“That particular evening was peaceful,” Flesch said. “There was [a] thought that they may have made that trip up to Shoshone that evening.”

The paddlers had more than four hours before nautical twilight, investigators believe, time enough to make an 8-mile trip. A waxing crescent moon over their port bow would have drawn them along.

They set up camp at South Narrow Point.

Seven days later, on Sept. 19, an anxious Lowrie called her sister-in-law, Becky Crumbo, asking about “our adventurers.” Becky Crumbo had heard nothing. 

“An alarm within me went off,” Lowrie said.

Yellowstone’s backcountry office handled Lowrie’s call. At Lewis Lake, park staffers located O’Neill’s Honda Pilot and trailer. Michael Curtis, backcountry district ranger for Yellowstone, called out searchers.

One trail crew on the Dogshead Trail to Shoshone Lake dropped its tools and began to comb the outlet area. Curtis dispatched another team down DeLacy Creek to search Shoshone’s east shore from the north.

Given the prevailing winds, “stuff inevitably ends up on that east shore,” he said. “The east shore is our highest probability.”

From the Dogshead work site, Ranger Jonathan Radovich hiked the undulating 4.5-mile trail overlooking the water. Within hours of Lowrie’s alert, he spotted something red.

It was a life vest, a personal flotation device, a PFD. It was empty. A photo shows it on the beach, zipped up. It held a clue, Chief Ranger Flesch said.

“The name Kim was written inside.”

The camp

That afternoon, Radovich and others found more clues — a paddle, a bucket, a drybag and then a canoe. Something had damaged the boat and broken a thwart. The drybag contained retired law enforcement credentials for Mark O’Neill.

Five searchers were in the field that day. “It was miserable,” Curtis said of the search’s start, “snow, wet, rainy.” They sheltered in the Shoshone Lake Ranger Station.

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