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Remembering Chris Okonek, beloved Gardiner fishing guide who died unexpectedly

“He was no old man by any means, but he had lived the life that I hope to live one day.”
Posted at 6:34 AM, Mar 25, 2024

A normal day for a beloved fishing guide in Gardiner on his routine walk up Jardine Road would turn tragic after he fell and hit his head. His wife says everything was fine until the next day.

“Complete disbelief,” said Jill James. “12 hours ago we were perfectly fine and living this amazing awesome life together and now I’m watching him leave.”

Jill James and Chris Okonek met each other while working in Oregon.

“We met within the first month of me working there,” said Jill. “Neither of us looking for anything, but there we were.”

Jill and Chris took off traveling together. Seeking adventure and finding easy companionship in each other. In 2019 they decided to plant roots in Gardiner.

“We checked every box for each other. We loved the outdoors, we loved hiking, camping, fishing, and skiing. We took advantage of everything we had available to us out here," Jill said.

Jill says Chris completely immersed himself in the close-knit community of Gardiner, which sits at the corridor of Yellowstone National Park.

In the summertime, He was a fishing guide at Yellowstone’s Bridge Bay Marina. In the winter, he was a snow coach driver.

On his downtime, he could be seen in his bright orange jacket taking a hike up Jardine Road.

“It’s a pretty steep hill so it’s a good workout,” said Jill.

On March 5, Chris embarked on a walk up Jardine like he’s done countless times before. That’s when he hit a slick spot on the hill, causing him to fall backward.

“He hit the base of his neck, his arm, and his back,” said Jill.

She says the only thing he really mentioned was having a sore neck.

“We looked up what to do, and put some ice on it,” said Jill. “Otherwise, he was fine—he went for a walk after that, he came home and cleaned the floors. He had a normal rest of his day.”

But the following day, things took a sudden, unexpected turn.

“He had started vomiting and seeing spots. So we took him to the clinic and it became immediately clear he was declining pretty quickly. His speech started to go and the focus in his eyes started to go," said Jill.

Chris was driven to the emergency room in Livingston where they began running some tests.

“While they were running those tests, he had what they call a devastating stroke,” said Jill.

Doctors informed Jill that Chris had damaged both Vertebral arteries which run through the spinal column in the neck to provide blood to the brain and spine. The blood that had built up in those damaged arteries essentially clotted and killed him.

Now, Jill is left to grieve this loss that she never saw coming.

“This was both of our dream life,” said Jill. “We shared so much and It’s unfathomable to think about being here without him.”

Gregor Woodruff worked as a fishing guide alongside Chris. They spent many hours together—not just working and casting lines, he says, but talking and enjoying each other’s company.

“When you’re in your mid-twenties or early thirties you may not realize it but you’re looking for advice,” said Gregor. “He was no old man by any means, but he had lived the life that I hope to live one day.”

Jill says she believes Chris will be looking down on her, his friends, and his family.

“I think his spirit will live on here,” said Jill. That big smiley face, his kindness. He was generous and genuine.”

His friend Gregor agrees.

“I think Chris is going to feel whatever happens on the lake this summer,” said Gregor. “We’re going to come up with some creative ways to honor him. He shared a lot of lessons with the guests, but also the younger fishing guides. I know those things will stick. I know personally, I’ll always remember the things he shared.”

A GoFundMe has been set up for Jill and Chris’s family as they lay him to rest. To contribute, visit: https://www.gofundme.com/f/in-memory-of-chris-okonek

Jill noted that Chris was able to be an organ donor and give 3 different people the gift of life. After experiencing this devastating loss, she encourages folks to never wait to get checked out after a head injury.