For naturalist Steve Merli, bear education isn’t just about staying alive. The way he sees it, knowing how to behave in bear country allows Alaskans to explore wilderness more deeply.
Merli works with Discovery Southeast, a Juneau organization that connects kids with nature programs.
Earlier this month, KTOO’s Lisa Phu joined campers for a lesson that had some questioning their assumptions about bear encounters.
Part of Steve Merli’s job is to change these sorts of perceptions:
“In some comics, like Tundra, it shows bears, like, they just go up to a campsite and eat the person,” one camper says.
Another says, “I have not heard any show that says bears are good in any way.”
He tells the campers more people are attacked by dogs than bears. He also says a bear has never been documented harming a person that’s in a group of five or more.
“So we’re already in a good spot. If a bear passes by, we’re already in a group and a bear is not going to go, ‘That one looks tasty.’ It’s not going to do that to us. It’s just going to go, ‘Woah, there are a lot of humans, I’m outta here,’” Merli says.
But he also reminds them, “There are lots of bears that live around here, so every time you’re outside of a building, a school, your house, you’re in bear country.”
Merli moved to Juneau in 1981. He’s been an educator for Discovery Southeast or 25 years. During the school year, he brings elementary students outside into nature. He teaches them how to identify landforms, animal tracks and creatures that live in the water.
In the summer, he joins the campers on hikes and talks about bears. He’s excited to take them beyond the beaten Auke Lake trail.
Merli picks a spot and heads right, up a steep hill.
“When we go off trail, it always kind of wakes up something inside me, like I become more focused because I don’t know what’s on the other side of the hill,” Merli says.
The campers follow, walking through a thick growth of ferns and moss and lots of devil’s club.
“Oh yeah, you’re just going to dance with the devil’s club,” Merli adds.
He gathers the campers in one spot and points to an imaginary bear about a hundred yards away.
“So I’m coming up the hill and I look up and there’s a bear over there and the first thing I’m going to do is, I’m just going to stop,” Merli says.
The next step is to assess the situation.
“Does that bear know I’m here? And by and large, if it’s that close, that bear probably knows I’m here, so I’m going to have a conversation with it,” Merli says.
He doesn’t suggest raising your voice and looking big and scary, but to simply talk with the bear, like this, “I was just coming up this hill, Bear, and I know that I’m in your living room and I’m just going to check out going back down the way I came because this is your place.”
Merli tells the campers to keep talking as you slowly back away. The bear could stay where it is or move away itself.
Twelve-year-old Landon Jueong learned a different way to deal with bears from his grandfather.
“To scare away the bear by acting big and making the bear not want to go around you or mess with you,” Landon says.
After taking turns roleplaying bear and hiker, practicing Merli’s method, both Landon and 12-year-old Brooke Sanford prefer it.
“I think it was a good way because you are avoiding the bear. You weren’t going towards it or scaring it away,” says Brooke, who has seen bears before.
“I don’t think I’d be afraid of bears in a group, but like alone, if you’re just walking through the woods alone, it might be a little bit scary,” she says.
Landon has this advice for anyone who’s scared of bears: “Bears are more afraid of you than you are of them.”
Merli says having a conversation with a bear allows it to know where you are.
“The average encounter with a bear is one of proximity and orientation so all I’m doing is allowing the bear to orient to me and if I’m all feisty over there, the bear may orient to me more aggressively. And I’ve never tested that,” he says.
Merli spends a lot of his time outdoors, often exploring Juneau’s mountains, cutting down firewood or hunting for food. Like other adventurous Alaskans, he can’t even count the times he’s encountered bears.
“So many,” Merli laughs.
In all that time, he’s only had one encounter that didn’t go so well. Luckily, he was near a house and could just run inside.
Merli’s goal in educating students is to make them feel safe and comfortable in nature. This, he says, will allow them to explore the outdoors and, at the same time, themselves.
“It’s really not about wildness out there; it’s about this wildness inside. Not that savage connotation, but this wild being that’s just like a bear. It’s really capable of this graceful capacity for self-care. I’m hungry, I eat. I need to protect myself, I do it. I’m tired, I sleep. This sounds ludicrous to the construct in which most of us are moving in the modern world,” he says.
Merli says there are a thousand stories out there turning bears into scary creatures. But most of them aren’t true. Those stories, he says, are just about our own fear.