For me, finding geology as a career was much less of an inevitability than many of the “Faces” I see featured here. As a boy I never had a mineral collection nor was I particularly interested in rocks. Perhaps this was largely due to the fact that I grew up in the flat post-glacial monotony that is farm country in southern Minnesota. I did always have a broad and in-tense interest in science. Though not necessarily nerdy (despite the fact that I would physically fight my older sisters to allow me to watch NOVA on PBS whenever it was on), I was very much interested in learning about biology, astronomy, and earth sciences. I was also always very keen on the concept of maps. From a young age I maintained a set of maps detailing crop rotation patterns, the location of fallow strips that pheasants lived in, and positions of wildlife I had spotted. This was mainly used for optimizing hunting strategy.
I remember thinking early on about process-oriented questions. In the summer before 6th grade, I was working in the fields and remember thinking for a long time about the fact that precious top soil is eroded into small creeks which flow into bigger creeks and ultimately into the Mississippi River, which I knew flowed into the ocean. I reasoned that there must be a whole lot of dirt in the Gulf of Mexico, and if this continues, eventually all of the dirt in the world would be in the oceans and everything would be flat. I consulted my encyclopedias and teachers to find out that on the first point I was right to a high precision (lots of dirt in the Gulf of Mexico) but flat wrong on the second point; this is when I first heard about Plate Tectonics.
After high school, I attended Winona State University along the Mississippi River in southwestern Minnesota where I be-came a composite materials engineering student. This seemed to me a good option for an applied scientific career where I would have an opportunity to work on practical problems. Growing up in a very blue-collar area instilled in me a prag-matic ideology and I was not much interested in the pure-science or academic aspects of things. I maintained a continued but pretty casual interest in geologic phenomenon until my second semester when in a moment of enlightenment I real-ized that life as an engineer would probably be spent behind a computer or in a lab. I decided that I wanted a more hands on career and dropped my major that day, eventually ending up in the office of a fresh-from-grad-school karst geomor-phology professor named Toby Dogwiler (the name drew me in). In the next hour or so he answered any nagging geo-logic questions I had, introduced me to the concept of spelunking as a job and successfully fired me up on pursuing earth sciences. After my first semester in the geology department I knew it was for me. I particularity enjoyed learning about large-scale sed/strat and tectonic processes. This culminated in the summer 2003 when my mentor Cathy Summa set me up as a field assistant for a PhD student at USC, using sequence stratigraphy to correlate the Neoproterozoic White-Inyo Mountains stratigraphy with the greater Death Valley section. It was here that I realized I wanted to work and live in the mountains; rugged, remote and barren ones if possible.
After finishing my undergrad in 2006 I went on to a Masters program at Idaho State University in Pocatello in search of mountains and great geology; both of which I found in abundance. I worked under Paul Link on a regional basin develop-ment and tectonics thesis in Southwestern Montana. Paul’s career as an outstanding field geologist and his dedication to students and field campers is a continued inspiration. Any possibility of a return to the Midwest evaporated at ISU as I fell in love with Cordilleran geology and discovered rock climbing, skiing, mountain biking, and inter-mountain hunting and fishing.
In early 2007 Paul put me in touch with Jerry Zeig of NovaGold and I had my first introduction to min-eral exploration that summer. Landing in Kotze-bue, AK in late May before breakup to barking sled dogs, whale bones, and bush Alaska was a memorable introduction indeed. I spent the rest of that summer and the next mapping, prospecting, and soil sampling from a helicopter in the Brooks Range, Seward Peninsula, and Kuskokwim Moun-tains, finishing my Masters in early 2008 between field seasons. NovaGold was quite busy in Alaska during these years and employed an impressive number of younger geologist, most of which re-main in the industry, now scattered far and wide. Many lasting relationships came out of these years and it was in Ambler in 2008 that I met my girlfriend Kristen Benchley who is now a success-ful Nevada geologist.
Fall 2008 spelled disaster for NovaGold’s exploration crew. While compiling data in Fairbanks after the field season we received an impromptu visit from management which resulted in most of us getting canned. This is where I developed my phobia of unannounced appearances by the boss, which does not seem like a completely irrational fear. I traveled through South and Central America through that winter and spring. One highlight (or low point) of that trip was being surrounded by armed men, with three other equally foolish geologists (and one random German kid) while attempting to cross a roadless and remote mountain range in Guatemala, which purportedly had not been traveled by white men since the civil war. Adventure was the objective and we found it.
Back in the states, a brief stint mudlogging on a geothermal project in Utah preceded another Alaska field season drilling a project in the Kuskokwims for a NovaGold spin-out. The after-work gold panning here was phenomenal but somewhat tempered by the remarkable bear and mosquito populations.
After being laid off again in the fall of 2009, I moved to Truckee to be with Kristen and got a job with Sierra Geothermal Power working on several geothermal exploration plays around Tonopah and Austin. This involved much time living out of a travel trailer in the thriving metropolis of Silver Peak. Frequent visits to the “Alternative”, a plywood bar which lived up to its name, made the experience tolerable. Sierra Geothermal was eventually taken over by Ram Power and I went with (the only staff position I have ever had). With Ram I continued working on their Nevada portfolio and spent a fair bit of time in Nicaragua on a development-stage geothermal project nested between several active volcanoes. Drilling and collecting real-time temperature and geochemistry data from active geothermal systems, to >1500 meters, has given me a perspective and ability to visualize large-scale epithermal systems that I would otherwise not have had, and I am thankful for that opportunity.
In the spring of 2011 things were beginning to look glum for the geothermal industry in general and Ram in particular. I departed just before their rapid fall from around $2.00 to $0.005. Through a NovaGold connection, Bill Burnett, I found myself (and Kristen) working in the eastern Alaska Range until the end of 2011. This project involved brutal weather, steep terrain, and challenging heli-copter work but all in an amazing, under-explored setting with great geology and new multi-gram gold mineralization to be discovered every day. While acting as project manager, one task involved dis-rupting the film crew of the Discovery Channel’s “Alaska State Troopers” while the real Troopers apprehended a drunk and bellig-erent driller who had given his helper a beating that warranted 11 stitches. Not the reason you want to see your camp in the newspa-per, although I sometimes wish we had the video to go along with the story.
In early 2012 Al Kirkham contacted me about evaluating the Gold-banks project for Kinross. This was initially a short assignment but the work we did, in part, led to Kinross acquiring 100% of the pro-ject and eventually pursuing some exploration targets away from the defined resource areas. Kristen and I came to our senses and moved across the border to Verdi in 2012 where we bought a house and a dog. I continue to work nearly exclusively for Kinross as a consultant, generating early-stage projects, evaluating submittals, and working on active projects.
Since the first week of my rookie season in Alaska I don’t think I have seriously doubted that I will spend my career in exploration of some variety. The blend of science, adventure, romance, and pragmatism I found hit the spot! The variety of geologic processes involved in un-derstanding metallogenic systems, from the scale of a pyrite rim to a plate boundary, is enough challenge for several lifetimes and the con-crete goal of discovery adds an element I’m not sure I could find else-where.
My free time these days is spent mostly skiing, hunting, fishing, and traveling with Kristen. I still try to take one or two big climbing trips a year to Yosemite or Zion National Park. Lately I have been consumed by chukar fever and have spent any available time rattling my pickup around the state with my field assistant and bird detector Esmeralda, “Ezzy”, our yellow lab. Per-haps there are some parallels with exploring for new gold deposits in Nevada and hunting chukar. I’m quite sure both are out there, and what keeps me going is the thought that with lots of hard work, frustration, and a little luck maybe I can get my hands on one.
John Winton Erwin*
Erin L. Hart
Greg T. Hill
Joseph Kizis, Jr
Brooke J Miller
Justin and Ajeet Milliard
Mia (Cowgill) O'Neal
Shea Clark Smith
Roger C Steininger