Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Professor Heads to Yellowstone when Summer Comes

By Courtney Westlake

On a typical day during the school year, Dr. Gilbert Crain can be found in his office, writing for the monthly newsletter, Governmental Accounting and Auditing Update, or in a classroom, teaching students about the finer aspects of accounting.

But when the summer moves in and school lets out, Crain packs up his books and heads to Yellowstone National Park, where he spends his days as a park ranger, primarily directing “bear jams” to ensure that Yellowstone’s bears can get safely across the roads, while leaving the park-goers and their vehicles unharmed as well.

It’s a double life that isn’t for the faint of heart.

Born in Urbana, Crain obtained his Ph.D. in accountancy from The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the spring of 1974, he left Illinois to teach at Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont.

It was several years ago, while still living in Bozeman, that Crain stumbled upon an opportunity that fulfilled a life-long dream of working outdoors.

“When I first started at Southern (Illinois University at Carbondale for undergraduate), I had my sights on being a forester, but I’m not a science guy,” he said. “That was really always where I wanted to be, was outdoors. About eight years ago, I had the opportunity to quit teaching some continuing education courses in the summer and started volunteering with Yellowstone.”

Crain spent several years working to keep unwanted plant life in the park to a minimum before he found his niche. One weekend, he ventured to Yellowstone for his typical activities, fishing and hiking, when he came across an enormous bear jam and a lone park ranger to handle it.

“I stopped and asked if she’d like some help; I’d done a couple bear jams before,” he said. “I started working jams with her that day, continued throughout the whole weekend and continued every weekend that fall.”

During a bear jam, when bears get too close to the road or cross the road, rangers work with three objectives: keeping the bear, and cubs, safe, keeping the people safe and lastly, keeping the vehicles safe, Crain said.

“Fortunately the bears along the road are really habituated and not aggressive, but they are still bears; they can run a hundred yards in 6 seconds,” he said. “I can tell you that in a situation like that (a complex bear jam), by the time it’s over, my adrenaline is well up there. I’ve decided that is a lot of why I do it - it’s an adrenaline rush.”

Now, Crain is taking a new step in his life: moving back to Illinois to become a new associate professor of accountancy at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“Part of it was a little bit of ‘going home’,” Crain said, adding that he knew his predecessor, Dave Olsen, very well. “To me, the most important things are the camaraderie of my colleagues and the work ethics of the students. I got good evaluations from Dave on both, and so far, that seems to be accurate.”

But although he is back in his home state, many hours from Yellowstone, Crain does not anticipate giving up on his second life anytime soon. And he encourages anyone else interested in volunteering at Yellowstone to talk with him.

“It’s exciting. It’s almost a spiritual thing, even though that sounds kind of hokey, but if you’ve ever been out on a jam with me, you’d understand,” Crain said.