The tour was going just as planned. Sun glistened off the salmon-filled stream. An eagle soared high above. Suddenly, brush broke below as an 800-pound coastal brown bear ambled toward the group. Pitch-black claws ripped through the hillside, while the powerful hump on its back swayed with each stride. Guide Luke Meyers spied a tuft of white on the bruin’s chest—leftover polar bear DNA.
“I’m locked, loaded, and the safety’s off. I’m ready to smoke him if I have to,” the outdoorsman recalls of the heart-stopping encounter. “He was 20 feet from me, and you could see there was something going on in his head. I just talked to him and said, ‘Why don’t you go back down there and get some fish?’ I talked in a real small, soothing voice, which I’d seen some of the natives use.”
The panting beast turned around and walked away.
Life in Hoonah, Alaska, couldn’t exist in starker contrast to Bob Jones University. But Meyers, a 1998 grad, wouldn’t have it any other way. “I wasn’t a conformist, ever,” Meyers says. “I was never going to do a nine-to-five.” The congenial rebel’s “office” is now 200 miles of logging roads in southeastern Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. His primary task: spotting bears for tourists.
“Where I track bears varies by season,” he reveals. “Early on, they use the logging roads as game trails. Later in spring, they move to clear-cut areas where wild blueberries, huckleberries, and salmonberries grow. Then later into summer, they go to streams—once the salmon start running.” Passengers bounce along in his large, Ford van, missing what’s obvious to trackers: “Destroyed skunk cabbage, paw prints going from one side to another, bear scat.”
Years after guiding his first group, he still gleans “bear signs” from the local ranger and indigenous friends. Once in a while, Meyers spies some “repeat offenders,” like Patches at Hoonah’s dump. But usually, each creature is different, providing a captivating glimpse of Ursus arctos sitkensis, a subspecies of brown bear that almost uniquely resides here. Sometimes, the best show plays out on his client’s faces. “I had a group from a big city, and we didn’t see anything for three hours. Then, we spotted a bear going in the bushes. It reemerged, looked right at us. One of the women was crying out of joy, and that made me tear up. That was magical giving her such an experience.”
Leaving the Den
Adjusting to life beneath the Northern Lights has been just about as perplexing as his initial move to Bob Jones University, after growing up in suburban Phoenix.
“It was a haze!” the bearded adventurer says, reminiscing with a hearty laugh. “I came from arid Arizona. Everyone had clean haircuts; I’d had a ponytail and earrings. I was very disoriented.”
He pressed every boundary at Bob Jones (his father’s alma mater and the only education his folks would fund), but skirted just shy of the demerit cap, to grab a degree in counseling. It was time to bust out of the bubble. First stop: Costa Rica to learn Spanish, and then the Dominican Republic where he worked with at-risk students.
“There’s something about my brain, and I can’t do something that’s expected of me,” admits the middle child. “I get bored really easily. In the D.R., when I had to shower out of a bucket, eat foods I’d never eaten before, and speak a different language, these things were fun and new.” Once the newness wore off and money wore thin, he returned to Greenville, where he flipped houses and worked at Stella’s Southern Bistro.
As much as he loved hiking Pisgah and Paris Mountain, his soul yearned to explore more. He built furniture in Oregon, but something was missing. At a low point in his mid-30s, a classmate from Bob Jones, a native Alaskan, invited him to the town of Hoonah to repair a roof. “I stayed two weeks, and kept calling the airline to delay my return. I finally came down, got my truck and drove back.”
That’s when Meyers stopped wandering. His restless spirit finds peace on Chichagof Island, a panhandle known for the densest population of coastal brown bears in the world. (Think Northern Exposure on the ocean, with a quirky Alaskan mix of 734 eclectic personalities.) “We’re like a big happy, dysfunctional family,” Meyers explains. “I don’t lock the doors to my house. Everybody knows me. I’ll find plates of fish and crabs in my truck.”
The bear whisperer has learned to can his own salmon, knows the exact island spot for cell service, and leads Sunday services in the small fishing village. “I host trivia nights on Wednesdays, and we have a Well-Fed, Well-Read group. We pick a piece of literature from somewhere in the world, like Japan, and we’ll talk about what we read and eat Japanese food.”
Work is a mix of passions and hobbies: carpentry, construction, and guiding. He even plans to open his own tour company in 2019, where he’ll continue to carry his .45-70 lever-action Marlin for protection. He has never had to pull the trigger, despite several close encounters, including one with Darrell. “We used to call him Little Bastard because he gets right up in your business. If you’re fishing, he just starts walking toward you and you have to throw rocks at him to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t cool. We need boundaries dude!’”
Meyers’ boundaries now encompass the world. During the winter, the journeyman leaves Alaska to travel. This year’s destinations include Ethiopia, Gabon, and Greenville. Yep. You can look for him at Stella’s, where he’ll be happy to share a beer and some bear tales.