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Past grabs interest, heart of geologist

The language of the land

Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2002

Dick Reger sees Alaska's scenery from a unique viewpoint.

Reger, who grew up in Soldotna during the homestead era, is a geologist with a long and distinguished scientific career. Now retired, he has returned to his boyhood haunts and devoted himself to studying the Kenai Peninsula.

While others view the land in three dimensions, seeing wide vistas and soaring mountains, Reger sees a fourth dimension hidden to most: the eons of the past and the processes that shaped the ground beneath us.

"A trip means 10 times more to me than to most people, because I am a geologist," he said. "I see the beauty of the land, but I also see how it got that way."

Reading the land

Reger sees a story written in the language of stone and soil. Where most people see a ridge, a gravel pit or a stripe of colored sand, he sees the moraine of a glacier, the delta of an ancient river or the fallout of a cataclysmic volcanic eruption.

That story began about 25,000 years ago.

"Basically, the story of the Kenai lowlands is the story of glaciation," he said. "We are in a so-called interglaciation now."

The climate of Southcentral Alaska changed then. Glaciers surged out of the mountains east and west of Cook Inlet. By about 20,000 years ago, ice covered the Cook Inlet basin. The only parts of the Kenai Peninsula not covered by either glaciers or their meltwater lakes were mountain tops, the Caribou Hills and the upland between Tustumena and Skilak lakes, he said.

Reger can visualize a time when the peninsula's open land was chilly, rocky waste crisscrossed by braided glacial streams and ice-water torrents. He can imagine a time when the present town site of Kenai lay beneath 1,000 feet of ice.

"It was very bleak. Not a good place to be," he said. "It was a really dry, cold, nasty place."

The glaciers scoured the mountains, serving as slow-motion conveyor belts moving rocks from the peaks to the plains. Their weight was so great it pressed the ground down, even as sea level dropped because the water was tied up in ice on land.

Where the glaciers' edges paused, rocky till piled up in ridges that still endure, like raised footprints upon the land. The ice from the west side reached onto what is now the peninsula, leaving agates from the northwest on Nikiski beaches and a major north-south ridge between Soldotna and Kasilof.

The glaciers advanced and retreated like great waves. Geologists call the 15 millennia of glacial domination the Naptowne glaciation, after the old name for Sterling. Scientists call the subsidiary ebb and flow within an ice age "stades" and search for remnants of their extent, marked by terminal moraines. On the Kenai Peninsula, Reger traces four such stades, named Moosehorn, Killey, Skilak and Elmendorf, within the Naptowne glaciation.

Reger stood near the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna last week and described the ridges rimming the town. They reflected the second great force shaping the landscape, flowing melt waters.

 

Reger holds a 15,500-year-old block of Lethe tephra, dirt that was once ash from an ancient volcanic eruption. The substance appears here as an orange line of soil in a hole he dug near Soldotna and is used to help date geologic events on the central peninsula.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Unlike today's rivers and streams, ice-age waterways moved huge amounts of water, especially when glaciers retreated. Depending on the rate of the flow and the sediment in the water, the rivers either eroded their courses deeper or grew shallower as they dropped loads of sand and gravel. The sediments they dropped formed gravelly outwash plains.

"Under our feet is outwash that dates to the Killey Stade (about 16,000 years ago)," he said.

During the peak of glaciation, ice blocked the bottom of Cook Inlet and ice dammed up vast, frigid lakes overlying, at different times, what is now Sterling and the northern tip of the peninsula. When glaciers pulled back, water channels opened between them.

Often streams paralleled the fronts of retreating glaciers. Some were precursors of rivers today, but a time traveler would have trouble recognizing them. The area south of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge headquarters on Ski Hill Road is full of traces of a huge, old river bed, Reger said.

The Kenai River, during its youth, ran north of Skilak through what is now the Moose River and another part cut south across what is now Funny River Road, down through the modern marshy sources of Coal and Slikok creeks to the Kasilof River outflow.

"It's had a real dynamic history," he said.

Parts of Slikok Creek and Swanson River ran in the opposite directions from what they do now. Slikok went south into Coal Creek and the Kasilof; Swanson River ran south through what is now Beaver Creek. All over the peninsula, waterways with abrupt turns show where glaciers once overran old stream beds and redirected the flow into new channels, he said.

About 16,500 years ago, the glaciers retreated far enough that the ocean broke through near Shelikof Strait and sea water replaced fresh in most of the inlet. The geologists find the oldest marine fossils from that time.

The Kenai lowlands were lower then. The mouth of the Kenai River and the boggy flats of the Kalifornsky area were under a shallow bay. Reger has found evidence the Kenai River mouth was as far inland as Poppy Lane at one point.

Pointing out features near the modern mouth of the Kenai River, Reger talked about Kenai's past.

"The story at the lower part of the river is not the same as it is at Soldotna because of the tidal influence," he said. "It's a complex story down here."

About 16,500 years ago, Kenai had a climate and appearance similar to modern Antarctica, he said.

A towering tidewater glacier from Trading Bay hung over the modern town site, its melting pieces raining sediment into the shallows. At low tide, the ice ground on the bottom. Today, the distinct line on the Kenai bluff shows traces of that era. The lower layer was deformed by pressure from the ice's weight, the upper layer was not, and the intermediate layer, which drains rusty spring water is impermeable rocky till, Reger said.

As the glaciers shrank, so did the lakes, rivers and streams. Reger described most of the area's modern waterways, including the Kenai River, as "underfit." Geologists use the term to describe small waterways in valleys so big only much larger rivers could have formed them.

The landscape dried. Storm winds picked up silt and fine sand and formed them into dunes. These dunes remain, and we can see them easily where roads cut through rises of clear sand.

 

Geologist Richard Reger is reflected in a diagram he uses to explain the effects glaciers once had on the Kenai area.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

South of Soldotna, Reger stuck a shovel into an exposed roadside dune to show evidence of another force shaping the Kenai Peninsula: volcanic activity.

He uncovered a rust-colored stripe about three-inches thick in the sand. He called it Lethe tephra, named for the river near Katmai.

"It really takes an incredible eruption to form something as thick as this," he said. "There could have been three feet of ash deposited here."

The weathered ash remnant is about 15,500 years old. The ash fall would have been a catastrophe for living things in the area at the time. But now it is a boon for geologists. New microscopic and chemical analyses can fingerprint ash layers.

Determining the age of glacial deposits is difficult. Its own date is imprecise, but the Lethe tephra, found from Turnagain Arm to Kachemak Bay, shows geologists how pieces of the landscape puzzle line up around it.

"It is just like someone drew a line on a deposit and said, 'This is 15,500 years old.' It is a snapshot in geological time," Reger said.

Each successive wave of ice was somewhat smaller than the last. As the ice melted, the land rose and so did the sea level, causing the shorelines to move back and forth. By about 9,500 years ago, the Naptowne glaciation ended, and the landscape looked much as it does today.

Learning the terrain

Reger was born in Chico, Calif., one of four children of Harry and Maxine. He was 13 when they moved to Soldotna in 1952. He had gotten a taste of Alaska earlier visiting Anchorage with his father. The lad was impressed.

"I could hardly wait to get out of California," he said.

Soldotna at the time was a few cabins at the crossroads, a crude but optimistic place with fewer than 100 residents. His mechanically inclined father set up a garage. Young Dick and his siblings ran winter trap lines, ate a lot of fish and attended school in Kenai.

At the old Kenai High School, he was one of four students in the first earth science class, taught by George Fabricius. It answered a question that had bugged him for years: Why were big boulders randomly strewn around the area? He learned they were dropped by glaciers, and he got hooked on geology.

"That was the thing that really flipped my switches," he said.

Reger graduated from high school about the same time the oil strike at Swanson River changed peninsula history. He planned to study wildlife management in college, but his dad wanted him to take geology classes and get on the oil boom bandwagon.

A summer oil patch job led to one of the biggest scares of his life. He was working as a "jug hustler," carrying equipment in the back country during seismic testing, when he stumbled upon a black bear cub. The mother charged him. He chased her off with a pole. Then he quit, because the company wouldn't allow workers to carry firearms.

 

Massive chunks of rock, called erratics after their random placement across the land, stand as monuments to the peninsula's ice age on the beach at Clam Gulch. They were dropped there by glaciers that originated on the far side of Cook Inlet.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Reger took his father's advice and studied geology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but from then on, he charted his own course. At first, where that course led was anything but clear.

"I was never interested in oil, really," he said.

Reger was on the verge of quitting college when a professor, Troy Pewe, turned him around.

"(Pewe) basically mentored me through my master's degree," he said.

Reger became Pewe's assistant and grew fascinated with the geology of land forms.

The Vietnam War was in full swing. When Reger finished college in 1964, the military would be waiting for him. His uncle advised him not to wait for the draft, but to go in as an officer and control his own future. The advice proved sound, he said.

Reger signed up with the ROTC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He carried the rank of first lieutenant and got to pick his duty station. He chose Fort Richardson and ended up in charge of heavy equipment repair.

"I thought it was ironic because my dad owned a garage down here, and I just hated it," he said.

The military gave him beneficial training and valuable supervisory experience. But regimentation rubbed him the wrong way, and he was glad to put it behind him.

Reger got a job with the Alaska Division of Mines and Geology, where he worked for two years.

"I knew by the end of the first summer that was what I wanted to do," he said. "But at the time they were only hiring PhDs (for permanent positions)."

Professor Pewe had moved to Arizona, where the university was starting a new geology program. He invited Reger to work with him and, as incentive, offered to help him earn a doctorate. Reger found the choice easy.

"I had my summers up here and my winters down there. It was the best of both worlds," he said.

Reger completed the degree in 1975.

Despite his degree and experience as a college instructor, he had no interest in academia. He wanted to work in the field.

After several years with a Fairbanks consulting firm, Reger got on with the state. He was the first geologist Alaska hired who was neither a mining nor oil specialist. He stayed on the job for 19 years.

"I spent most of my career mapping for the state of Alaska," he said.

The worst part of his job was helicopters. His first flight ended when the pilot ran out of gas and ditched in a Fairbanks yard. Once -- and only once -- he flew with a one-eyed pilot who bobbed his head from side to side to gauge their position. Prone to motion sickness, Reger used to beg the pilots to let him walk.

"One day I walked 28 miles," he said.

Reger traveled the state, working on projects such as evaluating possible geologic hazards and checking gravel substrates for building potential. The state promoted him to section chief.

"Then they made me regional manager. That about destroyed me," he said.

It was 1986, and the oil price drop plunged Alaska into recession. He had to layoff talented young geologists in his region.

"Guess who was caught in the middle?" he said.

Reger subsequently told the division he would turn down promotions and requested to go back to the field.

"I always liked being productive."

A sense of place

In 1995, Reger retired. At the urging of his wife, they moved from Fairbanks to Oregon. But he was unhappy, and the marriage soured.

"I never felt comfortable there. I never wanted to leave Alaska," he said. "I didn't feel in sync with the people Outside."

After 30 years of marriage and work, he found himself unattached and unemployed. In the summer of 2000, he returned to Alaska.

"The farther north I came, the better I felt, and I felt best when I passed Portage. I felt like I was coming home," he said.

"There is no place on Earth I would rather live."

Reger now lives and works in two cabins he rents from his brother. Most of the friends from his childhood are long gone, and the area's development disheartens him.

"To me, it is bad changes. I am especially unhappy with what I see with the river," he said.

Yet he finds much positive to focus on, too. Reger is no idle retiree. He became president of the Soldotna Historical Society and, after a 31-year hiatus, resumed teaching geology at KPC. He works as Reger's Geologic Consulting, with several contract projects.

One is mapping part of the Kenai River corridor. It ties in with a pet project he has been working on intermittently for 25 years: plumbing the Kenai Peninsula's past.

Reger pulled out a worn paper topographic map. It had lines and comments scrawled all over it in pencil. He explained that he uses it in the field to doodle ideas on. He goes through a lot of maps that way.

"You are basically trying to figure out what the Sam Hill happened ...," he said.

"It is really interesting to drive around. Once you've had the training, you can tell the history."

He sees the valleys, hills and those glacial erratic boulders now as old friends. And all that science has done nothing to detract from the charms of the landscape. Quite the contrary.

"I never tire of looking at Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna," he said.

"To me, the Kenai Mountains are very special. ... To me they are the most beautiful mountains in the world."



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