Class gives different view of Kenai River

Posted: Monday, June 26, 2000

Science isn't only taught in classrooms. On Thursday, the Kenai Watershed Forum taught a free lesson on the history of the Kenai River from the viewing platform along the Kenai River flats.

The exchange was part of the forum's Summer Program 2000. All summer long, the forum will offer free outdoor classes on habitat issues, fish runs, homesteading and Dena'ina plant lore. The walks take place weekly.

On Thursday, geologist Robert Ruffner shared a geological perspective of the Kenai River with nearly 20 people, both residents and visitors, at the Kenai River basin -- a spot which 20,000 years ago, during glacial maxim, was covered by ice a mile high.

"Today's purpose is to provide an educational opportunity for adults," Ruffner said.

Ruffner said his whole life has revolved around rivers. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Ruffner studied geology and civil engineering.

He has taught geology to college students in Minnesota and at Kenai Peninsula College. He said students in Alaska live in an environment with amazing geological formations.

"The textbooks have pictures from right where we're standing," he said from the Kenai River basin.

Ruffner discussed the history of the Kenai River, explaining how the river begins in the Kenai Mountains. The mountains are metamorphic rock.

Plate tectonics, a concept devised in 1965, involves the shifting and alteration of the Mid-Ocean Ridge. Plate tectonics creates mountains, causes volcanic eruptions and spreads new ocean floor.

Ruffner said the process is slow, but plate tectonics are moving the mountains around the peninsula closer to the cities. Basalt and other sediments move at a rate of inches per year.

"If we could drill down, we could actually see the plate moving," Ruffner said.

Ruffner added that people's eyes were not sensitive enough to actually see such movement.

"We think spatially. It's hard to think in long periods of time," he said.

In 1957, oil was discovered in the Cook Inlet basin. The spot was the first in the state to strike oil. Ruffner said that with the plate driving down and the earth bending, the resulting pressure and heat were all the factors necessary to create oil.

Ruffner said glaciers are responsible for carving out much of the world's land forms. During glacial maxim, glaciers rose up from both North and South America and northern glaciers reached as far down as Nebraska.

Glaciers ground up land and carried debris with them, and 17,000 to 18,000 years ago -- the speculated time that the glaciers receded -- they occasionally left behind giant boulders. These rocks, known as glacial erratics, are scattered all around the peninsula. They can be found in unusual spots, hundreds of miles away from any mountains or water systems. Ruffner cited the rock at Solid Rock Bible Camp as a glacial erratic.

The Kenai Watershed Forum is a nonprofit volunteer organization that puts on the annual Kenai River Festival, works with businesses interested in the health of the Kenai River and accepts charitable donations.

The forum's next public walk is this Thursday at 1 p.m. at Morgan's Landing State Park Headquarters parking lot. Area river guide Ken Marlow will show how to identify area birds by sight and sound.

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