The words of 27-year-old Brian Crane sound ominous as he sits casually in a Concordia University student lounge preparing to tell what he affectionately refers to as “The Bear Story.”
It’s a long story – made especially so by his fondness for spiraling digression – which involves aromatic cream cheese, a charging bear, four terrified hikers and a life-saving squirrel, all fatefully brought together in Alaska’s mountainous and remote Denali Park.
Crane becomes visibly excited while telling the story’s climactic conclusion, in which he is standing stoically, armed only with his hiking backpack, while being charged by a hungry grizzly.
“The bear got close enough where I saw the hair on its back bristling,” he says, never sparing a single detail. “It was not 50 yards away and still tearing straight at us.
“Honest to goodness this is what happens – I see right then, this ground squirrel pop up out of its hole not even two feet in front of the bear.
It’s Groundhog Day for this little squirrel who has to decide if he’s going to leave his hole or not…and he chose right for me. It panicked and ran out of its hole exactly perpendicular to the path between the bear and me.
We saw turf shoot up as the bear dug its claws into the ground and changed directions to chase the ground squirrel over the top of a hill….The squirrel saved our lives.”
Crane is an animated story-teller who sometimes makes me wonder if this slight grad student with the dark-rimmed glasses spinning tales of the arctic wild is for real. I can only conclude that Brian Crane certainly is.
Born in Florida and raised in Baton Rouge, La., Crane was driven north by the same thing that has driven countless men and women there before him – a thirst for adventure.
Upon graduation from high school, and despite having been accepted with scholarships to several other esteemed universities, Crane chose the University of Alaska Fairbanks because he longed for something different.
He originally planned to study there for only a year, just enough to get a taste of Arctic adventure, before transferring elsewhere.
But Alaska affected him in a way he hadn’t imagined. He was captivated by the northern state’s friendly inhabitants and stunning natural beauty.
It even turned him into a “radical environmentalist” vegan for a while.
“You kind of do that when you get to Alaska because the environment is all around you,” he explains. “You just get there and suddenly you’re out hiking and things are different. You experience things differently.”
Between intermittent sips of root beer, Crane draws from his Alaskan experiences to spin an array of colourful tales, from being chased by a curious moose to chipping away with a shovel at the outhouse “stalagshites” that formed during the frigid winter.
Another of his favourite stories is the time he ended up bruised and bloody after throwing himself down a steep rocky slope. After hiking to the top of Alaska’s Mt. Marathon, he discovered that the only way down – or perhaps the only interesting way down – would be to ‘surf’ along a path of small flakes of rock that had chipped off the rock face.
The danger apparently arose when he started having too much fun.
“I have this sort of irresponsible relationship with speed, so I started going insanely fast, because you can start pushing yourself off (to gain speed),” he says.
Crane goes on to describe how the path of rocks he had been ‘surfing’ veered to the right while he continued straight down over solid rock. As he tells the story he jumps out of his seat and demonstrates as best he can how he ended up running down the mountain at breakneck speed with his legs churning trying to keep up with his body’s momentum.
“At this moment,” he says, “I remember it so clearly, I said to myself, almost as if I were another person, ‘I am going to die.’ At this point there was nothing between me and the tree line except rocks, drop-offs and boulders. I was like, ‘I’m going to bounce and scrape and drop until I snap my back around some tree.'”
Out of desperation he decided to throw himself spread-eagle against the rocks to try to break his momentum, which he eventually did. He finishes his story by showing me the scars from where he used a pocket knife to dig slivers of rock out of his hand.
Between his forays into the wilderness, Crane completed a history degree, then turned down a spot at an Oregon law school to stay in Alaska and pursue a master’s degree in English.
After finishing his master’s, he eventually bid farewell to the state that had become his adopted home for the past seven years.
He is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in film studies at Concordia and is stockpiling another assortment of tales from his adventures in the urban wilderness of Montreal.