27.1 mi / 11.9 mph / 893 ft. climbing
Home: Hooper Park Campground
Two summers ago, Leah Lokan was riding her bike through Montana, and stopped in Ovando where she was welcomed to camp here just as we have been welcomed twice now. The old jail that we slept in last night must have been occupied on her night, so she pitched her tent in the grass behind it, along with another couple in their tent, just as thousands of others have in the summers before and since.
At 4am, a grizzly bear tore into her tent, dragged her halfway out, and, pouncing up and down on her body, broke her neck, severed her spine, and ended her life.
When we camped in Ovando a month ago, outside in our tent, we’d had no idea about this terrible night and terrifying death. A couple of days ago when we were approaching Ovando for the second time, we talked up the virtues of the town to a Great Divide rider. He said “oh, thanks, that sounds awesome, the only thing I knew about Ovando before is that that’s the town where that woman was killed by the bear.” “Say what now?” I thought to myself, but I didn’t actually ask any more at the time. Instead I looked it up later that night, and found an incredibly-detailed report had been published about the incident only a year ago. The report is so comprehensive that it includes a precise diagram illustrating that Ms. Lokan’s tent sat less than 15 ft. from where our heads lay last night.
Of course I mentioned nothing of this to Rett until we had left Ovando, until the scene of the attack and our unfairly peaceful night were both 30 miles behind us.
We have been living in bear country for more than a month now (“living in the bears’ country” might be a better phrasing), usually with nothing more than paper-thin fabric providing a false sense of separation between our world and theirs. That allows plenty of time to internally debate risk vs. safety, and to understand that it is impossible to set that knob optimally.
Every campground we’ve been in has signage warning to stay “bear aware”, which in practice means putting anything with a scent inside a bear box, and especially not in your tent. Nearly every campground has had a host stop by to verbally reinforce those warnings. Hiking guides and trailhead signs strongly encourage carrying bear spray, hiking in groups of at least three, making noise, and a host of other safety recommendations. We have encountered trails closed due to bear activity, and campgrounds temporarily and permanently closed to tent camping. The multiple streams of information mean that it is nearly impossible to live here and not become extremely bear-aware.
On the other hand, we have seen bears now three separate times [Ed. note: four times (with six bears total) as of this Aug 25th writing], and the lack of fear we have felt in all those cases indicates that either our guts are terrible at judging risk, or that the horrifying, real, but rare bear attacks may be over-represented in the overall risk-calculus of the average visitor in bear country (admittedly most of our encounters have been with less-aggressive black bears rather than grizzlies).
Either way, I’m glad to have had those experiences, because at least now I’ve gotten to hear a bit of the bears’ side of the argument. And it strikes me a bit like the different reactions to lightning in different parts of the country. When we moved to the Pacific Northwest, I was amazed by the volume and intensity of the lighting-awareness campaign (“When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!”) put out by the National Weather Service any time there was a 20% chance of a thunderstorm. Lightning is so rare there that it’s easy to imagine it as a murderous sniper with a 90% kill-rate, since its lack-of-visibility prevents it from presenting its own side of the argument, which is that it’s really a terrible shot. Whereas in the Midwest, everyone has frequent, visible experience with thunderstorms, but almost no one knows anyone who has been struck by lightning, so there is an inherent population-wide understanding that lightning really kinda sucks at killing people. No one is going to climb to the top of the tree during a thunderstorm, but I don’t remember hearing rhyming slogans every summer afternoon.
But of course, you can still get struck and killed by lightning! It’s not like the NWS meteorologists in the PacNW are wrong to be warning about the possibility. But having a bit of personal experience, both with lightning, and now with bears, helps me to calibrate my own reaction to the warnings.
When I was in Yellowstone in 2007, I don’t remember even thinking about getting bear spray. I’m sure it existed, but I don’t remember it being advertised or recommended at anywhere near the level it’s promoted now. In Glacier in 2023, I would say that upwards of 95% of parties hiking the trails had at least one canister of bear spray with them. It’s likely that the science has evolved and bear spray’s effectiveness has become more understood, but the cynic in me also has to wonder how much Big Bear Spray “created” a market for their $50 product (that must go unused 99.9% of the time), based on the fact that most buyers haven’t had a chance to hear the bears’ side of the argument.
We took off on our first hike in Glacier without bear spray. It’s a somewhat large thing to add to our luggage, and it seemed wasteful to buy this plastic-heavy product only to trash it a couple weeks later (exchanges/rentals exist in some places, but they’re far rarer and less-advertised than they should be). That doesn’t mean I wasn’t questioning whether we’d made the wrong choice. Luckily our internal doubt was settled halfway into the hike, when we found a canister (with belt holster) on the side of the trail (my guess is that someone put it down and forgot to pick it up after a snack). There were two immediate effects when I strapped it on. First, the one I expected, and the main driver that might have eventually worn me down into buying my own: I felt less social shame, no longer imagining other hikers talking about the irresponsibility of that couple they just passed. Second, the unexpected effect: I felt safer! On the rare chance of a bear attack, we now at least wouldn’t be entirely helpless. I could suddenly understand its ubiquity; simply possessing this item substantially reduces trail-anxiety (anxiety induced by the flood of bear-warnings, to be sure) and makes hiking more-enjoyable. But then I also realized that the increased feeling of safety it provides is likely greater than actual increase in safety.
In Glacier, we mentioned to a ranger that we were sad we weren’t able to hike to Cracker Lake, and she said “oh sorry, I’m actually the reason that trail is closed.” She was hiking with a large, experienced group, doing everything right, and they were charged by a grizzly. Despite their experience and preparation, they were unable to use their bear spray, because the wind would have blown it back in their faces. They ended up saving themselves by…running, one thing the bear-aware advice tells you not to do (they only did it once they had backed around a corner out of sight).
In Ovando, Leah Lokan emptied the can of bear spray that she had in her tent with her, and the bear still killed her.
So it’s a bit like buying a magic amulet purported to protect against dragon fire. Until a dragon actually breathes fire on me, I won’t know if the shopkeeper who sold it to me was genuinely concerned for my safety, or a charlatan leveraging my fear to earn a few silver pieces. But it’s shiny and has a red jewel and the shopkeeper had a long white beard, so that’s still enough to make me feel better when I’m walking near the Lonely Mountain! Is that a good thing? I’m not sure!
Back in Ovando, while I appreciate the detailed investigation and report that followed the terrible incident (real-world data is the best!), its conclusions feel disappointingly uninformative. It seems that the tendency of officials (we saw it in Glacier too) is to use any bear incident as a hook to simply reinforce their standard list of rules, even if the specific facts of the incident may tell a different story. I can understand the reasoning behind this strategy, because I’m sure people are much more likely to feel that it’s important to follow the rules if they can be linked to a recent, detailed, and specific incident. And the main purpose of the rules is really to prevent bears from becoming food-conditioned, which can be a prerequisite (but a significantly upstream prerequisite) of them becoming human-attacking. But while I certainly care about keeping bears wild, and thus follow the rules as much as possible, I’m much more interested to know what specific things we can do to minimize the chances of a bear from attacking us in our tent as we sleep. Especially because it’s difficult to imagine an incident as recent, detailed, and specific to our own situation as the night in Ovando when a bike tourer was killed in her tent.
In Leah Lokan’s case, I can tell that the report makes some effort to not blame the victim, but it doesn’t quite succeed. One of the main “rules” is essentially “don’t bring anything with a scent into your tent”. Food is a fairly obvious thing with a scent, but it extends to toiletries as well, and sometimes even water bottles, and that’s where the combination of illogic and impracticality make it a challenge to be a conscientious rule-follower. Am I really supposed to believe that toothpaste inside a tube inside a bag is wafting out more scent than my hot breath blowing air out of my freshly-brushed mouth? (and that’s assuming bears are somehow more-attracted to fake mint than to our sweat-stinky bodies!)
But the investigators definitely believe in their rules. In the report they state: “Two dried blueberry bags containing toiletries and other personal items were found inside the tent. The bags still had the scent of berries on them.” Hmm, I guess that makes sense. Bears like berries, and maybe the toiletries were an attractant too. In the “Conclusion” section they state “Food and toiletries inside and near the tent…were likely contributing factors.”
But wait. Earlier the report also stated “Numerous food items, including beef jerky, crackers, seeds, trail mix, granola bars, electrolyte drink powder and tablets, and a baked potato wrapped in foil, were found in the saddle bags of the victim’s bicycle which was leaning against the back wall of the museum approximately 10 feet from the victim’s tent.”
Wait what?!? She had a literal baked potato in her pannier 10 feet away, and we’re supposed to believe that the bear instead killed her over some bags that once contained some dried blueberries?! That literally does not pass the sniff test!
Investigators also were able to collect a detailed history of the bear (using DNA tests!) and report that it had been systematically raiding chicken coops in the area. To me, a more logical conclusion is that this bear sensed a warm body inside a tent and assumed it was just a new form of chicken coop, attacked accordingly, and the things Ms. Lokan had in her tent or panniers had nothing to do with it.
Essentially this was a crazy psycho of a grizzly bear, and like a bolt of lightning from the sky, if a crazy psycho of a grizzly bear decides to come for you, there is no amount of rule-following that is going to save you.
Does that mean we should ignore the rules? Of course not, but we should understand their origin and purpose. The whole idea of keeping food and scents away is not to prevent attacks, but to prevent bears from realizing that human activities can be an easy source of food. Because once they realize that, then those bears are going to be encountering humans much more frequently, greatly increasing the odds of attack should it turn out that one of the food-conditioned bears is also a crazy psycho.
My impression is that Ovando was already fairly “bear aware” even before they were awoken by the nightmare of 2021, but they then redoubled their efforts to, if not directly prevent the lightning strike of an attack, at least reduce the chances of storm clouds re-developing, by discouraging the food-conditioning of bears. Ranchers nearby have installed electric fencing, and we’ve seen children’s posters encouraging fruit to be picked and removed from trees.
On our second visit we definitely stored our food in one of the two bear boxes, unlike in our panniers five feet from our tent the first time. There was a sign inside our old jail room saying that no food is allowed inside (on the night of her death, an initial harmless visit from the bear had prompted Ms. Lokan to move food from her tent into the jail prior to the fatal attack). Nonetheless, the previous guests had left a significant amount of quite-fragrant food in the indoor wastebasket, which certainly makes me question what the overall compliance rate is on “bear aware” rules.
In our two visits to Ovando, not one of the locals had mentioned the 2021 attack. I can understand them not wanting to dwell on that night, or allow it to define Ovando, but I bet publicizing it a bit more would up compliance. And personal experience shows that people are not too happy when I tell them about it after-the-fact. It’s likely that the previous guests didn’t know about it either, and as I said above, without that specific, detailed, and recent example in their minds, it’s much easier to ignore the rules.
For us, even though I hadn’t yet told Rett about the violent death that occurred steps from our bed, she did think it was a bit odd how I made sure to close and bar the door to our cell before we dropped off, despite the fact that it was still quite warm inside from the day’s heat. Even though it now almost feels less-likely for lightning to strike twice in this town, the knowledge that it has struck once has a powerful effect on the low-level risk-assessment process always running in our animal brains.
So in the end, all my time living in the bears’ country has left me with a bit of a fatalistic attitude. If a bear wants to kill us, it’s probably going to kill us. Just as a logging truck barrelling into us on the road would kill us, or a lightning strike would kill us. There are risks built into any activity, and we just need to accept the tradeoffs that come along with the huge rewards of our chosen lifestyle. We’re certainly going to do what is reasonable to prevent bears from becoming food-conditioned, and thus lower the odds of the next bike tourers from being killed, but I wish the authorities would be more forthright about that distinction.
Because the conclusion of the report contains two sections, one titled “Recommendations generated from the findings of this incident”, and the other “Standard Grizzly Bear Safety Messages”. And there is almost no difference between the two lists, making it sound like the investigators are literally saying “we already know everything there is to know and Ms. Lokan’s death can teach us nothing new.” The single novel idea (and a good one!) was to encourage bear spray manufacturers to add a loud whistle that blows when bear spray is deployed, to alert others nearby who may be able to help (and it may also further deter the bear). It’s also an idea that directly addresses attack prevention/survival rather than merely food-conditioning like nearly all the other recommendations do. And that fresh idea came not from any of the experts on the committee, but from the grieving family and friends of Leah Lokan.
Maybe it’s because the experts have actually arrived at the same conclusion I have (if a bear wants to kill you, you will be dead, even if your bear spray has a whistle), but they’re just not willing to be that explicit and publicly fatalistic about it? Maybe because if they were more forthright about this truth, the public would be less-tolerant about allowing the bears to live amongst us. If that’s the case, then I return a full 360 to the experts being right, because even knowing the risks, it would sadden me to have missed this wonderful opportunity to live in the bears’ country.
Ok, so we did a bike ride this day too. It was a complete repeat of a ride a month ago. So what were the differences? The skies were much hazier, due to a wildfire above Seeley Lake, uncomfortably close to where we had camped two nights ago. It had apparently even been burning while we were there, but grew significantly yesterday. The guy who had thought of spending two nights in Ovando (so that he could have a chance to sleep in the old jail) decided to move on so that he wouldn’t be caught in it (Ovando is the site of the official evacuation center!) Only after looking at the photos attached to the incident report did I realize that a strange white wall of a cloud Rett had pointed out yesterday was actually the smoke column! Hopefully the effects will be as transitory as the day of smoke in Glacier was, but with the source being so local this time it feels different.
Beyond that, traffic on the shoulderless section between the turnoff to Helena and Lincoln was even less of an issue.
Then instead of a motel that we went to so Rett could do her weekly video call, today wasn’t Thursday so we camped in the county park campground in town. And instead of melting frost dripping from the motel roof in the morning, the day’s challenge was surviving the afternoon heat, which we mostly did in the shade of the large shelter.
Carlos, a Great Divide rider from Spain who we met last night in Ovando (who was leaving the off-road route to head to Helena, like us) joined us at our campsite and we had pleasantly and surprisingly nuanced conversations about life its adventures.
At the site next to the one we chose, I’d noticed a through-hiker sitting at the picnic table. A little odd since it was the middle of the day, but I didn’t think much of it until he got up 30 minutes later, and suddenly I recognized him from his walk! He was the doofy through-hiker I had rudely doubted two weeks ago at Rising Sun campground in Glacier! We were both surprised to re-meet here, but unfortunately for him it’s because he self-diagnosed a stress-fracture in his foot, for which rest was the only fix. So he’d been here in Lincoln the last few days fighting boredom. Given his recognizable gait, it seems he might have already had the fracture in Glacier. Either way, it was still more support for the idea that there are really only about 30 people adventuring out here, and we’ll run into all of them sooner or later!
For dinner we indulged Lamby this time and went to “her” restaurant, Lambkins. She was pleased that her employees were running a tight ship in her absence (we brought her in a bit like a food critic trying to remain anonymous), and I was especially glad that we’d missed yesterday’s prime rib dinner in Ovando because I made up for it here and it was excellent.
At the campground, less than 30 miles from Ovando, there was a single lonely bear box for the entire campground, and open, unsecured trash barrels everywhere.