Echoes of a Notorious Bear Attack Are Still Felt on the Tour Divide Years Later

Sep 20, 2023

”I’m in a remote part of the Grand Tetons, a place where you can get nabbed out of your sleeping bag by bears,” said Chris Burkard, renowned outdoor and adventure photographer.

Burkard was in the thick of his first attempt to complete the 2023 Tour Divide Bike Race.  His goals left little time for anything other than pedaling as fast as he could from the border of Canada to Mexico which left him desperate for sleep. It was a fatal mechanical issue that finally forced him to stop and unwillingly over his bike to a mobile mechanic. 

While waiting, Burkard pulled out his bivy sack and slumped, in total exhaustion, down to the dirt. He was somewhere in the backcountry of the Grand Tetons when he recognized, in this forced downtime, he could actually catch a few moments of quality sleep from the safety-in-numbers type of security unintentionally provided by the bicycle mechanic.

A short while later Burkard was shaken awake as the mechanic told him his bike was fixed and he could be on his way. Burkard thanked the mobile bicycle mechanic before he left and tried to sleep just a bit longer before getting back on his bike, this time without a second human being watching his back.

One hour later Burkard bolted awake, convinced that a bear encounter, at the very least, was imminent.  ”I don’t know what it was, but I had a feeling. I was so exposed.”

As it turns out, Burkard’s fellow cyclists felt the same premonition and had taken shelter in a pit toilet building 12 miles farther down the road in an area along the route known to be prime habitat for grizzly bears.

They, too, felt exposed and for good reason: every Tour Divide participant knows of the specific cautionary tale they carry with them, top of mind, like an additional item in their Ten Essentials Kit.  

This is the story of Leah Lokan.

Each year, a unique, misogi challenge-seeking athlete participates in an annual mountain bike ride called the Tour Divide.  The route of the self-supporting bike ride takes its participants through a grueling 2,745 mile, mostly off-pavement journey along the brutal length of the Rocky Mountains, from Jasper, Alberta, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

Tour Divide bike riders commit themselves to extreme self-reliance and mental toughness when they sign up for this event.  Most accept that a resignation of control over the wild elements of the natural world is a requirement not necessarily acknowledging that they might be conceding control over their very survival, as well.

Leah Davis Lokan started her bid to complete the Tour Divide at age 65. A Chico, California resident, Leah arrived in Eureka, Montana where she started the long bike journey with her sister, Kim Lokan, and their friend Katherine Boerner. On July 5, 2021, a few days into the tour, the three women rode into the town of Ovando, Montana, where they stopped for the night.

Leah’s sister Kim and their friend Katherine stayed in a hotel while Leah chose to camp outside, in her tent, in a grassy space behind the behind the Ovando Brand Bar Museum.  The campground and museum was situated right off the central hub of the small town and was a popular place to rest for the night for bike riders who would be passing through town.

Leah set up her camp 20 feet from other bike riders’ tents and fell asleep, opting to not remove her food stores and scented items.

Grand Tetons Grizzly Bear

At 3:08 a.m., on July 6, 2021, Leah was jolted awake by what she described to two friends as “a huffing noise” coming from an animal located immediately outside her shelter. When the noise continued inches from her head, she screamed for help, certain the animal was a bear.

Leah’s screams brought the help of two friends from their own tent and, together, they successfully chased off a large grizzly bear with loud noises and pepper spray.

Once the situation was resolved, Leah’s two friends suggested to her that she stay in a hotel for the rest of the night.  Leah declined and, after removing two storage bags of assorted attractants like snacks and a large bag of dried lentils from her tent, she acquired her own can of bear spray and went back to sleep.

At 4:05 a.m., campers were woken up to a second visit the same bear as it violently pounced upon and shredded Leah’s tent.  Leah’s friends attempted to come to her aid with loud whistles and bear spray but were unsuccessful in redirecting the bear’s attention from further damaging Leah’s tent and her lifeless body.

The Powell County Sheriff’s Office was called to the scene and, upon arrival, pronounced Leah Lokan as deceased.  An investigation was initiated and the cause of death was found to be from a broken neck and severed spine, resulting from the bear attack.

The death investigation further revealed that two empty bags of dried blueberries had been repurposed as a toiletry kit and catch-all container–both of which were found inside Leah’s tent.  Investigators on scene confirmed that these two bags to be what the bear initially sought when it destroyed Leah’s tent, fatally injuring her in the process.

Upon conclusion of the investigation into Leah Lokan’s death, the grizzly bear responsible for the attack was found and killed, a decision made by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee and their subsequent review citing that the predatory attack was caused by “a habituated or food-conditioned bear.”

The report concluded with findings that, although “predatory [bear] attacks are rare, we will never be able to predict how, why or when the predatory instinct” will strike next due to the nature of wild animals and the encroachment of humans and their bad habits into the territory these animals call home.

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