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Old rocks, renewed passion

Well-known area geologist finds second wind with new discovery

Posted: April 14, 2012 - 6:13pm  |  Updated: April 14, 2012 - 6:17pm
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Dick Reger, a well known Alaska geologist, talks about geology and rock formations of the Kenai Peninsula on Friday at his cabin in the hills near Sterling.

  Brian Smith
Brian Smith
Dick Reger, a well known Alaska geologist, talks about geology and rock formations of the Kenai Peninsula on Friday at his cabin in the hills near Sterling.

Point to one of the many dusty rocks on Dick Reger’s shelf.

He’ll tell you what it is.

Where it came from.

How old it is.

And usually a story about how he came upon it.

“That’s the way geologists think,” said the 73-year-old Reger as spring sunshine filled the small wood cabin he rents at the top of a hill in Sterling.

There’s the shelf of rocks. Then there are the buckets of rocks underneath the windowsill in the kitchen. Across the room stuffed into a bookcase is an entire series of geological journals and resting near those are various tubs stuffed with much of the same — a whole lot of business and papers about rocks, dirt, soil and geological formations.

Much of it has Reger’s name inked on it or his fingerprints around it.

That corner of the cabin has paid the bills during his more than 50 years as a geologist, but what’s on top of Reger’s bookcase, he said, is what’s most exciting — a young woolly mammoth jawbone with a molar tooth still in place.

Most people get excited looking at old stuff, but Reger does it all the time. So what’s so thrilling about a dusty mammoth fossil?

“It’s a whole new concept of these animals being down on the Kenai,” he said running his hands over the strangely textured surface. “Everybody you talked to in the early days said, ‘Oh, none of those animals lived down here, they all lived in the Interior.’”

The mammoth work started about two years ago and has been the subject of at least five area presentations with Homer’s Janet Klein, who sparked the project, he said. It’s a nice break from Reger’s continued work mapping pipeline corridors with consideration to geological conditions, he said. He is now working on the gas bullet line project and the Trans-Canada line, among other projects.

“I need to retire,” he said with a laugh.

But, just as every item in Reger’s collection has a unique story, so does the man who has collected them.

“I’m really lucky because I make my living doing what I love to do,” he said. “There are very few people who can say that. Everything I work on, it’s an upper for me. But I try not to be too obsessive or compulsive about it.”

Reger and his family moved to Soldotna in August 1952 from Northern California. He went on to graduate from Kenai High School in 1957 and receive his master’s in geology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and after a stint in the Army, he eventually earned his doctorate from Arizona State University in the mid-1970s.

In the winter of 1971, he came back to the area to find work teaching, but didn’t have the proper certificate. He ended up picking up road-killed moose to make a living, but not for long.

“I got $25 a moose and 12 cents a mile,” he said. “Picked up 75 moose that winter.”

Eventually, he went to work for a Fairbanks company looking at the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, doing drilling to evaluate subsurface conditions, permafrost, landslides, slope instabilities, ice content and a number of other factors to help with the design of the route and structure.

“Another fellow and I mapped the whole 800 miles of the pipeline route — we did the first maps,” he said, noting that work was based on air photos combined with subsurface data. He would go on to map it again two more times for other people, he said.

Placing his hand on the cover of a quarter-inch-thick book containing analysis of the famous pipeline route, he said he is proud of such work — hard and cutting edge research at the time, he said.

“Nobody had any idea what was out there really,” he said.

In 1975, Reger went to work for the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys as the first nonmineral, nonpetroleum geologist.

After 19-and-a-half years with the state, Reger’s wife tried to get him to retire and move Outside. After spending a little time in Oregon, he couldn’t keep his promise. It just wasn’t the geologist’s playground known as Alaska, he said, biting his lip and flashing a youthful grin.

He returned to Soldotna area in the late 1990s and began consulting for the state after the marriage fell apart. He was shocked when he returned to his hometown. When he left there were only 300 people in the entire central Kenai Peninsula area.

“I’d been gone 40 years and it took me about five years to get over the cultural shock of how this place had changed in response to the oil boom and all the influx of people and how people utilized the river,” he said shaking his head.

Over the years, Reger has beefed up his resume to include 136 publications either authored or co-authored by him. He said he’s never really bragged much about those reports, maps, book reviews, abstracts and other unpublished works.

“I gave a talk in Fairbanks several years ago and a woman got up and said I had 130 publications and I was shocked,” he said.

In 2007, he and A.G. Sturmann, Ed Berg and P.A.C. Burns produced “A Guide to the Late Quaternary History of Northern and Western Kenai Peninsula.” At $25, it’s the best darn deal in town, he said.

“This kind of represented a culmination of my studies for the glacial history, but it also involved a lot of work by Ed Berg and some of his colleagues,” he said flipping through the pages. “It shows landslides and vegetation and all kinds of things.”

On the cover is a photo of huge hunk of granite with his brother Doug standing at the top, as small as a mouse, comparatively speaking. The rock had been carried by glaciers from the Talkeetna Mountains and landed just off Robinson Loop in the Sterling area about 18,000 years ago. Such rocks are also visible on the north beach of Kenai, he said.

“When you fly out over there, you can see a whole string of them,” he said.

Research on glaciations on the Peninsula contained in the publication are also how Reger got wrapped up into the woolly mammoth discussions with Klein.

“When Janet first talked to me about this I didn’t believe these animals were here,” he said. “I had been studying the glacial history of the Kenai lowlands since 1976 and I just didn’t see how any animals could live here during the last ice age for sure.”

But over the years, as people came forward with fossil elements found between Diamond Creek and Homer but as far north as Clam Gulch, he started to change his mind. He even recalls a story of kid finding a mammoth tooth on the beach and selling it to a local merchant for $10.

“What’s happening is these fossil remains are coming from beyond the old ice limit down the creeks down the canyons and they end up on the beach and are transported by the long shore current down the beach and they found them clear down to the Homer Spit,” he said.

The hypothesis is that the mammoths traveled through mountain passes on to the Peninsula from the Interior and found an area — the Caribou Hills — that wasn’t covered by glaciers, he said.

“It doesn’t mean the animals lived there during the last ice age, in fact when we date them they are all older than that,” he said. “They all date between 27,000 and more than 48,500 years ago. In a period of time between the last two major glaciations is when these animals were living in this area.”

So far he and Klein have been made aware of about 15 different fossil pieces and have carbon dated — at $700 a pop — four of them.

“People are bringing in samples all the time,” he said. “That’s the wonderful part of this mammoth study is it’s community-based. It’s people who find things on the beach and they are willing to come forward with them. The first talk we gave was in Homer and the room was full of people. Jammy-packed.”

Most recently the two spoke at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus on the subject, he said, and the excitement was palpable.

“It really turns people on,” he said.

As a geomorphologist, Reger studies the evolution of landforms and how they develop. It’s literally changed the way he looks at the world, he said.

“When I go on a trip, I see 10 times more than anybody else,” he said. “I see in terms of time and space and everything.”

Pulling item after item from his shelf, Reger stops and runs his hands over a pair of rocks he found on the Kenai River. The dark black, almost waxy-feeling stones came from the Kenai Mountains and were polished by generations of sand and silt brushing it so gently. They are made up of old lava flow deposited on the bottom of the ocean millions of years ago, incorporated into the Kenai Mountains, eroded out and brought down the river.

Speaking of lava, Reger is reminded of another specimen on his shelf and pulls down what he called a “bomb.” It’s a large teardrop-shaped hunk of magma that cooled and solidified as it twisted through the air leaving aerodynamic lines alongside it and a curlicue tail.

The other such magma specimen didn’t solidify before it hit the earth. That’s called a “cow pie” and looks like a bowl with a flat bottom and thin sides. It went “splat,” Reger explained.

At this point in his career, he maintains only one rule when it comes to rocks and geological specimens — no more donations.

“During the first half of my life I collected,” he said. “During the second half of my life I’m disposing.”

Reger loves to share his knowledge, he said. He wanted to be a professor early in his life, but said he didn’t want to live under a “publish or perish” directive. He’d rather be in the field, among Alaska — a young man and young woman’s country.

He serves now — when he isn’t getting excited about mammoths or working on pipeline projects — as a mentor to younger geologists who haven’t quite had the same training he received so many years ago.

“I go out and work with them in the field and transfer whatever expertise I can to them and show them how I work,” he said with a smile. “And that works well for me.” 

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