UAS geologist Connor rocks on

Juneau Color

Posted: Friday, August 30, 2002

Warm rain dripped from dawn sequoias here before the ice age.

It's all in the rocks. Cathy Connor, a Juneau geologist and teacher, looks at our Southeast rocks and sees their stories - cinnamon trees and erupting volcanoes, advancing ice and ancient lakes.

This week found Connor, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, preparing for classes and in a boat at the face of the Mendenhall Glacier, watching the glacier pull back from the lake.

"The glacier is drastically receding," she said. "The sun is basically eating it."

The glacier is advancing as rapidly as 3 feet every day, but it's melting even faster, retreating about 100 feet a year. In five or 10 years she sees the glacier hanging above the north shore, completely separate from the lake.

Research projects keep her current, and next week Connor will give her students the lowdown on the big picture in Southeast Alaska from the Eocene ginger plants to Baja, our future neighbor.

"She's the quintessential science teacher," said Terri Lauterbach, a former student. "There's a real range of students at UAS, kids right out of high school, and people like myself who have a background and want to know more about how and why. She can reach the whole spectrum."

Connor grew up on the central California coast. Her grandfather had a fishing boat on San Francisco Bay and her dad took the family clamming at Point Reyes. She wanted to be a marine biologist like her idol Jacques Cousteau, and spent her high school years scuba diving in the kelp beds with her best friend.

She went to Stanford University to study biology, but a two-week class called Geology of the Grand Canyon from a Raft turned her interest to ancient biology revealed in rocks.

Connor started teaching in Malaysia in the Peace Corps. She gave agriculture students soil-science lessons and on the side she taught girls how to swim in their clothes. Her students were a mix of cultures, Chinese, Indians and Malays. The women studying fisheries had to pass a swimming test, but bathing suits were too risqué in the mid-1970s for Malaysian women.

She led two-week field trips to the countryside, where in addition to rocks students saw hunters stalking game with blowguns. They dodged snakes, thorns and leeches.

"The roadkill there was cobra," she said.

The mix of cultures made for interesting group camping.

"They worshipped different gods, ate different food and dressed completely different," she said.

She fell in love with another Peace Corps volunteer, a research biologist named Rod Flynn who had a Land Rover.

"He was studying rhinoceros," she said. "They have a VW-size one that lives in the rain forest."

Flynn now studies bears with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He was instrumental in bringing Connor to Juneau. After the Peace Corps, Connor bounced between studies in Montana, work with the U.S. Geological Survey in California, and research in Alaska's Copper Mountains. She studied ancient lake Ahtna, a massive ice-age lake that formed when a glacier blocked the Copper River.

Her connection to Flynn remained strong, and in 1983 they married and she settled in Juneau. They have three kids.

"I just launched the oldest to college at (the University of California) Santa Cruz," she said. "She plays soccer for the Banana Slugs, (the school team)."

Soccer is big with the family. Her husband coaches soccer and serves as president of the Juneau Soccer Club.

"Three Juneau soccer teams went to Fairbanks and all took championships," she said. "Now we're working on fund raising to get to Hawaii for the Youth Soccer Western Regional in 2003."

LouAnn Gagne has been friends with Connor since the mid-1980s.

"We met on the bus," she said. "We both had babies on our backs. She lives right down the street from me now."

Gagne and Connor hike together, talk about parenting and belong to the same book club. Gagne said sometimes on their walks Connor will explode into geology terms, switching from thinking in human time of weeks and months to geologic time of epochs and eons.

Connor said the future in Southeast Alaska won't be dull.

Los Angeles and Baja are on a tectonic plate headed north, sliding against the West Coast along the San Andreas fault. The way it looks, in a few dozen million years that slice of Southern California will raft up against Southeast.

"None of us will be here to see it," she said. "We live such short lives. We have to learn to read the rocks."

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