Maine Man Loves Utah Snow and Bones
December 4, 2007
Don DeBlieux has an old bone to pick in Utah. He’s good at it. As a field paleontologist for the Utah Department of Natural Resources Geological Survey, he’s found and identified many important fossils in the six years he’s been with the agency. His arrival here marked the beginning of another chapter in a book of life filled with adventure, to which he’s still adding pages.
He was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the oldest of Mary and Don DeBlieux’s four children. The family moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts soon afterward. DeBlieux attended school there and enjoyed what he describes as "a fairly carefree life as a kid."
"It was the 1960s and ’70s and we had a lot of freedom to go wherever and do whatever we wanted, as long as we came home for dinner," says DeBlieux. "There was a forest near our house, so we spent a lot of time out there climbing trees, getting muddy and generally goofing off."
"We rode our bikes everywhere, swam, fished and played hockey on frozen ponds. That’s where I developed my love of the outdoor," he says.
DeBlieux learned to ski at Bousquets, a small ski area a few miles from his home. "I fell in love with skiing the very first day. I skied a lot at night and, to this day, going night-skiing makes me feel like I’m 16 again."
In high school DeBlieux was fascinated by science and history and excelled in biology class. He played football, hockey and baseball. "I wasn’t particularly good at any of them, but I had fun," he says. His avid pursuit of outdoor sports would later evolve into a driving passion. He graduated from Pittsfield High in 1978.
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DeBlieux attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His childhood fascination with science paid off in college. He took a bachelor’s degree in Zoology with a minor in Anthropology and returned for a Master’s degree in Zoology.
"I had a few influential teachers at UMass and that’s how I ended up pursuing vertebrate anatomy and paleontology," he explains. "It’s very hands-on and that appealed to me. We study things that you can pick up and hold in your hands; they aren’t microscopic or theoretical. Also, being able to work outside, often in exotic places, is very cool. For the last 15 years I’ve spent a couple of months every summer living in a tent."
After college DeBlieux moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he took a 10-year hiatus from full-time work as a paleontologist. He worked for 10 seasons as a downhill and cross-country ski instructor at Eldora Mountain Resort in Nederland. He also developed a passion for endurance sports.
"It was a great place where I met and trained with many elite athletes. I call that my ‘early retirement,’ since I got to ski, climb, run, ride and triathlon to my heart’s content.
DeBlieux met his wife, Jane, while working at Eldora. "She came into the Nordic Center and needed her skis waxed. She was working as a nurse in Boulder, but was also working part-time at the resort," he recounts. "She had a beautiful smile that drew me in, she was so nice and friendly. We both liked outdoor sports and had a lot in common." They were married within two years.
During the off-season, DeBlieux took part in 15 expeditions to Africa to find fossils. "I helped lead eight expeditions to the Fayum fossil bed of Egypt with paleontologists from Duke University," he says. "We lived out in the desert and focused our searches on fossil primates from around 30 million years ago. Some of the first primates that we recognize as monkeys are found there."
DeBlieux also lead five expeditions to Madagascar to look for evidence of extinct giant lemurs. "We explored caves and sinkholes in a very remote area of the country and scored big in Ankilitelo, the deepest known cave in Madagascar," he says. "We rappelled over 400 feet straight down to the bottom and found a large pile of bones. We collected over 5,000 vertebrate fossils of some amazing animals from that one cave. It doesn’t get much more exotic than that." DeBlieux reflects on the experience. "It was a great place to get a perspective on how much we take for granted here. The people there live in mud and grass huts near their herds of zebu, a kind of humped cow. They have no clean water, electricity or medicine and not much contact with the outside world. But they were very hospitable and would offer you anything they had."
DeBlieux left Colorado in 1997 to take a job at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He moved back west in 2001, spending a few months in Grand Junction, Colorado before moving to the Park City area.
now a respected, veteran field paleontologist with an international portfolio, he was offered a position with the Utah Geological Survey. "Working in Utah has been incredible," says DeBlieux. "The state has seen a renaissance in paleontology over the last few years and a lot of new fossils have been found."
"One of our hurdles is keeping up with the pressures on our public lands as a result of oil and gas development. Once again, we’re in a boom-and-bust cycle in pursuit of short-term gain at the expense of our long-term interests," DeBlieux laments.
Comfortably ensconced in Summit Park, DeBlieux balances work and pleasure with gusto. On winter weekends he teaches cross-country skiing at the White Pine Touring Center. He’s also been a junior competition team coach for The Utah Nordic Alliance’s Salt Lake City team for the last several years.
"I consider myself a Nordic skiing ambassador, so I try to share my love of skiing," says DeBlieux. "I like to be friendly and helpful out on the trails. The bottom line is it’s supposed to be fun. It bugs me when folks get so serious that they can’t say hello out on the trail."
DeBlieux has competed in endurance sports since 1984. He considers it a matter of life and death. "I’ve had a good life so far but I’ve had many friends who are no longer around. I figure every day is a bonus and I try to make the best of it. If you’re doing something and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, then you know you are doing the right thing."
DeBlieux remains passionate about his chosen profession as well. "Studying the history of life has given me a profound appreciation for the diversity of our planet," he says. "Every living thing shares a common genetic heritage that goes back to the beginning of life. So, in that way we are all equal. We truly are all family. You can’t groom your dog or look into the eyes of any fellow mammal and not feel the kinship."
"One of the amazing things about humans, most of us anyway, is how much we really care. The history of our planet is the most amazing story and I feel privileged to be able to add a little more detail to it," he concludes.
Favorite things to do in Park City: Ski, bike, run, eat
Favorite foods: bananas, peanut butter and jelly, sushi, Mexican, Indian, pizza and beer. "One of the attributes of a good field paleontologist is the ability to eat just about anything."
Favorite authors/reading: science and science fiction. "I’ve just read a couple of Christopher Moore books that are pretty hilarious".
Favorite performers/music: Grateful Dead, Punk, Reggae and African
Pets: "An eight-year-old Carolina redneck fox hound mutt named Beasie and two cats: Stinker, a seven-year-old princess and Charlie, a six-year-old hairy love muffin."