YAKIMA, Wash. — If you ask Andy Stepniewski about himself, you’ll get either a short answer or a change of subject. As one of Yakima County’s foremost naturalists, he is fascinated by the world, its flora and fauna. He does not find himself particularly interesting.
He can regale you for hours about vegetation zones’ role in the biosphere. He can detail minute distinctions between nearly identical bird species, from their calls and colours to their diet and migratory patterns.
In the world of Washington birding and the state’s Audubon community, Stepniewski is an icon. He wrote the book, quite literally, on the birds of Yakima County. His efforts were essential to the state’s go-to birding book, “A Birder’s Guide to Washington.”
And he’d prefer you didn’t know or care about that, to keep the focus on the natural wonders he finds so fascinating.
That state birding guide? You’d never know he had any part in it by looking at the cover. Stepniewski refused to be named as an author, wanting the credit to go solely to the Washington Ornithological Society.
And he can’t begin to grasp why people might be impressed that, at 62, he remains an avid outdoorsman — despite having to basically drag along the half of his body that hasn’t worked properly for nearly four decades.
Ever since the day a grizzly bear tried to tear off his head.
Kaleidoscope of nature
The time Stepniewski has spent on numerous boards — Cowiche Canyon Conservancy, the ornithological and Audubon societies among them — attest to his sense of responsibility. His sense of wonder, though, has always thrived outdoors in the natural world.
Born in Canada but raised in Orange County, California, he can still recall the day he identified his first bird. He and his younger brother, Michael, were playing in the turtle pond they’d built when he heard a bird singing above him.
“It was very close, and I couldn’t ignore it,” says Stepniewski, who ran into the house, grabbed his parents’ binoculars and came out to get a closer look. Then he went to the school library to figure out what he had seen: a house finch.
His introduction to the world’s marvels was fostered by his parents, who “always liked to go to wild places.” They took him to the San Jacinto Mountains, Sequoia National Park and Joshua Tree. He saw his first robin at Utah’s Zion National Park. When a friend invited him to a Boy Scout meeting, he was hooked.
“I channeled my energy into nature,” he says. “With the Boy Scouts, I started to learn the world of nature was pretty big.”
He began learning about what he calls Southern California’s “kaleidoscope of vegetation zones.” For a high school biology project, he did seasonal waterfowl surveys at a local marsh that are still cited in California birding publications.
Andy was about 18 when his father finally soured on the Southern California commute. The family moved back to British Columbia, bringing Andy closer to what would become his first career path — as a park naturalist.
And, of course, closer to the grizzly bear that would change his life.
By the time he encountered the bear, though, he should probably already have been dead. Twice.
Speedometer at 3 o’clock
The first time had been simply a case of being a teenager in the wrong car being driven far too fast by, yes, another teenager. But even that tragic accident had been the coincidental result of his love for the natural world.
He was 16, still living in California, when he and a buddy made the four-hour drive to a mountainous area where he had heard one could see California condors.
“We went up there, and at midday there they were — California condors, like little airplanes,” says Stepniewski.
He and his buddy, Earl, drove on to a forest campground, where they met two other boys who had heard about a dance in the nearby town of Kernville. The four of them took off in that direction in the other boys’ Volkswagen Beetle.
“I’m thinking this guy’s going fast. I mean, really fast. And nobody said a word,” recalls Stepniewski, who was sitting in the front passenger seat. “The first curve we made, the tires were screeching; I glanced over at the speedometer and I couldn’t see the numbers, but I could see it was at 3 o’clock.”
On the second curve, the car rolled. Probably several times.
When Stepniewski came to his senses — “Kind of going, ‘Hey, I’m still here”‘ — he realized Earl was not. Neither was the driver. This being before seat belts were commonplace, the two boys on the driver’s side had both been ejected and were lying dead in the road.
Except for a few glass shards, Stepniewski and the boy behind him were fine.
Upon returning to his own car, he was overwhelmed by what he was convinced was a nauseating odour. Though the car had been in the campground the whole time, nowhere near the accident — and he could not have been smelling what he thought he was — he was sure he detected something terrible in it.
Something like dead bodies and blood.
Mount McKinley in winter
That Stepniewski was again nearly killed in March 1976 — still four months before he met the grizzly — is a testament to the kind of physical specimen he was as a young man.
He had been employed by Canada’s parks for four years by that time, first as a park naturalist and later as what might best be described as a scout of future parks.
Stepniewski, usually with another park employee, would be taken by float plane into remote areas of Canada’s Coast Mountains. There they would hike for 10 days to two weeks — carrying 50- to 60-pound packs — to assess each area for potential economic attributes such as mining, timber, hydrology and recreation.
This was the strapping young Stepniewski — capable, fearless, not yet even 23 years old — who was invited to join the first winter attempt to climb and ski-traverse Mount McKinley (now called Denali), at 20,310 feet the highest peak in North America.
The already-small four-man team dwindled to three early on when one of his companions plunged through the snow waist-deep into a crevasse. “I guess he looked down and said, ‘This isn’t the place for me,”‘ says Stepniewski. “He quit and skied out alone, more than 100 miles.”
The three remaining climbers continued. They were camped at 11,000 feet, with their sleeping bags drying outside the tent in the afternoon sun, when a sudden windstorm blew a sleeping bag away before they could catch it.
Being short a sleeping bag in the upper reaches of one of the world’s deadliest mountains was a recipe for disaster. One team member, Dave, arranged to join the only other climbing team on that part of the mountain.
The other, Carl, joined Stepniewski on the ski traverse back down the mountain.
Andy never saw the crevasse.
50 feet down a crevasse
They were skiing on the descent, roped together, in the heat of the day, when Stepniewski fell into darkness.
“The sun just beats down on the ice and melts everything,” he says. The crevasse “was totally hidden — must have been a soft bridge.
“I mean, I don’t remember. But I was told later I couldn’t see it.”
He doesn’t remember because he plunged into the unseen crevasse, plummeting more than 50 feet. On the way down, his face and head bashed into something hard, shattering his right cheekbone and briefly knocking him unconscious.
Still roped, Stepniewski used mechanical ascenders to pull himself up the rope and out of the crevasse, an ordeal that left him totally spent. Carl “thought I was toast,” recalls Stepniewski. “He’s thinking, ‘Andy’s not going to be able to get out, I gotta get help.’ Which was a totally irrational thing to do on a warm day, on a glacier on Mount McKinley.
“But he did it.”
Carl left Stepniewski, reascended, caught up with the other climbing team, and persuaded Dave to help get Andy to safety. The two helped Andy descend the rest of the mountain, and then the trio ski-trekked dozens of miles out into the tundra before finally finding a radio signal so Andy could be flown out.
Stepniewski still has a close-up photo of his face after the accident.
“It’s a pretty gory photo,” Stepniewski says. “Sort of, ‘Is that Andy?”‘
What happened four months later, though, would be much worse.
Grizzlies in the area
He was working as a naturalist at Alberta’s Jasper National Park, loving his life.
“I was a naturalist at the Columbia Icefields, with the glaciers,” he says. “This was world-class. The Jasper-Banff highway is driven by several million people every year; it’s on the international tour circuit. And I got to work there — and I got paid for it, plus room and board.”
That was heady stuff for a young man of 23. Even better, his fiancee, Barbara Chapman, was working just a three-hour drive away at Glacier National Park (not the Montana park of the same name). On the evening of July 25, 1976, Andy drove to visit her for a few days, and — being climbers — the two planned to do a one-day ascent of Mount Sir Donald the next day.
When morning clouds raised the potential of a thunderstorm, though, they decided on a day hike instead.
“Barbara had been up what’s called Balu Pass Trail on another day trip, and she said it was a pretty cool area,” Stepniewski says. “But she hadn’t been up this other side, called Cougar Valley. So I said, ‘Well, let’s go there.”‘
A trailhead sign warned them of the possibility of grizzly bears in the area. The two took little notice; virtually every trailhead in the park had the same warning sign.
They didn’t know that, just five years before, three people had been injured by a grizzly sow in two separate incidents just 3 miles away.
Andy and Barbara were hiking up the steep track on a side hill, intentionally making noise as they went to alert any bears to their approach. Barbara was whistling.
They rounded a bend, and Andy saw the bear — 50 feet away and charging.
Like a curtain came down
The bear got to Andy first, lunging at him and essentially ripping off the top part of his head. “Scalped me,” he says evenly.
Stepniewski wasn’t trying to play dead, as he had been taught. That would have required a thought process, and — though he hadn’t lost consciousness — he was almost certainly already in shock.
“I wasn’t fighting the bear,” he says. “But I think as soon as it realized I wasn’t a threat, it had another threat right next to me: Barb. I didn’t see it at the time, but she was close — and my last sight of her was her taking the camera and starting to throw it at the bear, on the strap.
“And then she screamed for just a couple of seconds if I recall, and then there was nothing. Then there was huffing and puffing. After I saw the camera go like that, just halfway through her motion, it was like a curtain came down. Even though I was there, and a second ago I was watching, my memory from that point on is blank. I didn’t see a thing.
“Which is probably good. I don’t have a vision of her dying, and I’m thankful for that.”
After some time, the huffing and puffing — probably the grizzly, a sow with cubs, dragging Barbara’s body down the slope — diminished. Stepniewski tried to look around, but his glasses had been shattered, and without them he was legally blind. So he couldn’t see Barbara, or the bear, or much of anything. But he knew he had to try to get up and go.
Otherwise, he says, “I would die there.”
Sledgehammer to the head
Somehow, he staggered a mile and a half to the trailhead, where he fell on the edge of the highway. A passing motorist stopped. As someone began tending to him, Stepniewski muttered, “Girl up there. I think she’s dead.”
He couldn’t see or understand a lot that was going on, but, he says, “I could hear everything. And I was cold, because it was 55 or 60, my clothes had been ripped off and people were going ‘Oh my god.”‘ As he was being driven to the hospital, whoever was with him “would say from time to time, ‘Still there?”‘
Stepniewski was, but he would never be the same. The bear’s savagery to the right side of his head had caused a brain injury that rendered his left side essentially useless, much like a stroke.
That resulted from “the lunging on my skull — and I remember the lunging. It was, you know, kind of like taking a sledgehammer to your head and swinging on it.”
He had no feeling on his left side until, one day at the hospital in Kamloops, British Columbia, he felt a bit of a twinge. A neurosurgeon told him, “Andy, you’re going to get most of that back.”
Andy took that to heart, and remained optimistic he would still be able to spend much of his life in the great outdoors.
When he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Vancouver, though, the medical director came in, looked at his chart and said:
“Do you know that you will never be normal again?”
The definition of a man
Forget normal. Try extraordinary.
Andy spent a lot of time at the Vancouver rehab centre in the company of quadriplegics and paraplegics, whose fellowship — and irrepressible nature — he still values greatly. He remembers sitting with just such a group one day when a beautiful therapist named Charlotte walked by.
A quadriplegic buddy said to Andy, “If you think anything would make me walk again, it’s the sight of Charlotte.”
“I thought that was just so poignant,” Stepniewski says with a sad smile. “I treasure that experience.”
He made steady improvements in his own therapy, learning how to dress himself, to drive, to walk with a cane, to cope. “It became evident early on I wasn’t going to be skiing, and that I’d have to adjust my mountaineering to hiking,” he says. “But birding was something I could do.
“So I adjusted.”
Many of the achievements in his life — both in his avocation as a bird-loving naturalist and his vocation managing Windy Point’s fruit-packing operation near Wapato for 37 years — have happened since he encountered the bear.
His name carries weight. His reputation resonates. He’s married to a woman, Ellen, who shares his passion for the natural world, and that unhelpful left side hasn’t kept him from hitting the birding trails with her whenever time allows.
A bear attack redefined the way Andy Stepniewski had to live his life. But it did not define him.
Just don’t ask him to define himself. He’d be the first to tell you, he’s just not that interesting.
Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com
By Scott Sandsberry