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Mammoth fossil find energizes Kenai geologist

By Brian Smith

Peninsula Clarion

Published: Friday, April 20 2012 1:45 p.m. MDT

In this April 13, 2012 photo, Dick Reger, a well-known Alaska geologist, talks about geology and rock formations of the Kenai Peninsula at his cabin in the hills near Sterling, Alaska.

Peninsula Clarion, Brian Smith, Associated Press

KENAI, Alaska — 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.

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