It was a crisp autumn morning, the sky awash in a rainbow of colors from the rising sun, greeting his spirit with open arms. Kenneson G. Dean, 71, passed away at Caring Bridges Assisted Living Home, on Sept. 17, 2020, from dementia with Parkinson's after 45 years of marriage, two daughters and three grandsons.
Growing up in Maryland with two younger brothers, Ken worked on his degree in civil engineering until a car accident put his studies on hold. After a semester at the University of Maryland, he headed west and earned a Bachelor's of Science in geology at Northern Arizona University. Returning to Annapolis, he worked as a civil engineer for the city of Baltimore.
The adventure bug bit after a year, and he and a buddy drove to Fairbanks, Alaska, volunteering to help fight a Canadian wildfire along the way. After becoming friends that summer, he and three others moved into an old cabin off Chena Hot Springs Road and spent the winter of '74-'75, hunting and trapping to survive until overflow from Colorado Creek chased them out in the spring. Ken's hilarious and crazy adventures from those days were told and retold throughout his life.
A particular story that always brought tears of laughter to his eyes was that of an exploding can of corn, which caused everyone to hit the floor and draw their guns, as if in a Wild West film. With his daughters on the edge of their seats, he recounted being chased by wolves, while making his way back to the cabin from the outhouse.
Ken and Deb met at NAU and married in 1975, bringing Deb north from southern California. Ken had been working at a job logging core samples in the field, when he was hired as a quality control engineer on vertical support members of the trans-Alaska pipeline near Livengood. Eating lunch one day in his company truck, a curious black bear climbed on the roof. Ken, unaware, wondered why the crew was laughing and taking photos of him. When the job ended, he began work on his Master's of Science in remote sensing geology at the Geophysical Institute (GI), University of Alaska, graduating in 1979. All the while, he and Deb worked evenings and weekends on the daylight basement of the house that would be their home for exactly 40 years.
With true interest in our country's space program, he wrote a letter in 1980 to then president-elect Ronald Reagan, imploring support of the space program and associated scientific research. At the GI, Ken was instrumental in setting up the institute's first High Resolution Picture Transfer Station to use AVHRR and Landsat data. This was a milestone, opening up the possibility of near real-time image analysis, where Ken became a pioneer. He monitored forest fires, sea ice movement, river breakup and glacial outburst floods, and studied and monitored ocean currents and river discharge in the Bering and Chukchi seas and Arctic Ocean and then the Valdez oil spill. The family still has a small jar of tar-coated pebbles that he brought home to show the girls after first-hand observations.
In 1989, when Mount Redoubt erupted, he joined the newly founded Alaska Volcano Observatory. Early years of monitoring required trips to the GI at all hours of the night when significant hot spots had been detected. The girls remember waking up with the phone ringing and their dad sneaking out of the house like a secret agent. Ken loved being a part of the AVO team and building the AVO remote sensing department. He made substantial contributions to the puff volcanic ash dispersion model used worldwide for volcanic ash cloud forecasting.
For more than 25 years, Ken and his team monitored volcanoes in the North Pacific, culminating in a book on the topic of which he was lead editor and coordinator. Among staff and faculty members, he was known as an excellent mentor for his dedication and collegial temper and guided more than 20 graduate students in their studies. Throughout his career, he co-organized and attended many conferences worldwide, and co-established the biennial International Circumpolar Remote Sensing Symposium, now in its 31st year. His findings and analyses were presented in more than 150 books, reports, articles, presentations and other publications. He retired in 2011, as research professor emeritus.
Family meant the world to Ken. Fishing was his passion and he enjoyed teaching many people the art of silver salmon fishing. Family and friends enjoyed summer expeditions in Valdez waters, laughing afterward at incidences of sheer chaos with fish on two lines and dogs bailing overboard all at the same time; and marveling at all the wildlife including a humpback whale diving and surfacing almost too close for comfort.
After retiring, Ken and Deb enjoyed numerous international jaunts and many road trips in the Lower 48 to visit family and friends. Ken never met a stranger anywhere on the globe. He loved to talk and listen and had a gift for truly understanding people. Ken's experiences and stories inspired adventure and he instilled a deep love of Alaska in his daughters that will be passed along to his grandsons. He was a "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" fan and read just about every sci-fi book published. He loved a good meal and martinis with family and friends. "Two olives on the side, please."
The family suggests that memorial donations be made to The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research
or to KUAC Friends Group, online at kuac.org.