Being a good field geologist in Alaska comes with challenges, namely the rough and often unforgiving terrain, not to mention the inclement weather.
When geologist and AAPG member Rocky Reifenstuhl burst onto the scene in Fairbanks in the late 1970s – working for the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys (ADGGS) for 27 years – his passion for extreme sports and adventure naturally spilled over into his profession.
For Reifenstuhl, field geology in the Frontier State became the ultimate hands-on experience.
A native New Yorker named after boxer Rocky Graziano, Reifenstuhl hiked dozens, sometimes hundreds, of miles through moist tussock tundra and other challenging terrain with all his gear on his back, recalled former colleague Gil Mull, an AAPG member who worked for the ADGGS before retiring.
Reifenstuhl was known for always carrying his single-lens reflex camera around his neck to photograph wildlife and rocks. And, after a long day in the field, he often declined a relaxing happy hour with peers to instead cycle up a mountain on a bike with extra wide tires.
It is understandable then, that his family and friends were in utter disbelief over his death in January at the age of 61. Reifenstuhl died in Salt Lake City while, ironically, waiting for a heart transplant.
In the Alaska Geological Society’s April newsletter, many recalled Reifenstuhl’s insatiable desire to explore off the beaten path. In the field, his exceptional wilderness skills aided significantly in the collection of data he included in his oral presentations and in his numerous maps and reports. They are testimony to the contributions he made to Alaska and the evaluation of its hydrocarbon resources.
“He covered the country like a caribou,” Mull said.
Reifenstuhl was honored for his contributions in 2004 when a newly discovered Devonian gastropod species of the subgenus “Palaeozygopleura (Rhenozyga) reifenstuhli” was named after him by AAPG member Robert B. Blodgett, a consulting geologist and paleontologist in Alaska, former colleague of Reifenstuhl.
During his career, Reifenstuhl played a major role in mapping Alaska’s Sadlerochit and Shublik Mountains in the northeastern Brooks Range as part of an evaluation of the oil and gas potential of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
He also collaborated with the Alaska Division of Oil & Gas and the U.S. Geological Survey, leading a four-year, multi-agency research program focused on the petroleum geology of the Bristol Bay area.
He was known for publishing maps in a timely fashion, as he was not one who felt compelled to find interpretations for all uncertainties. “He had a saying that ‘perfect is the enemy of good,’” Mull recalled.
Rivaling his professional accomplishments were his athletic feats. Reifenstuhl biked to work in the winter – the 50-below temperatures registering as mere balmy conditions for the man who seemed more bionic than human.
He won bike races along the Iditarod trail and often placed in Fairbanks’ Equinox Marathon. In his 50s, Reifenstuhl won the Fireweed 400, a 400-mile bike race from Sheep Mountain to Valdez and back.
He and his brother, Steve, once walked a 300-mile segment of the Brooks Range in roughly a week. After he retired, he and his wife, Gail Koepf, also participated in lengthy bike tours in Cuba, Patagonia and New Zealand.
In the geological society’s newsletter, a former colleague wrote: “I remember walking toward my tent late one night and there was Rocky, off in the distance, riding his mountain bike atop a low ridge, silhouetted by the midnight sun. I watched him until he was out of sight … That’s how I’ll always remember Rocky.”