Fat Bear Week

Katmai National Park in Alaska is a massive tract, larger than Connecticut.

It’s home to one of the most alien locations on the planet: The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The result of the largest volcanic eruption by volume in the 20th century, the valley is strewn with ash, in some places as deep as 700 feet. For nearly 30 years after the 1912 event, steam and gas drifted from fumaroles in the ash, granting the area its name.

As a result, this sliver of Alaska packs in a slew of disparate landscapes. One can view the ocean, rugged, ice-capped mountains, glaciers, and charred wasteland all in the size of a small New England state.

The summit crater of Mount Katmai - photo by Captain Budd Christman
The smoking Valley in 1916 - photo from National Geographic
A river slices slowly through the ash of the Valley - NOAA

Katmai isn’t just inanimate splendor, though.

More than 2,200 brown bears, also known as grizzlies, inhabit the park. They spend copious amounts of time during the summer and early autumn at the salmon buffet known as Brooks River, fattening up for a long winter’s hibernation.

Katmai’s isolation and harsh terrain make it one of the least visited National Parks in the United States. The unit has never crossed into six-digit visitation territory; in 2021, just 24,000 people visited Katmai. In order to give the gorgeous park reach to people who might never have the means to see it in person, rangers have set up a series of webcams.

Explore.org is a wonderful resource for nature streaming. The site features footage from hundreds of wild spots all over the globe, including 11 in Katmai National Park.

Bear 747 in Katmai National Park - photo by L. Law

In 2014, a ranger named Mike Fritz noticed the grizzlies of Katmai were undoubtedly the stars of the live stream shows. People would tune in to see them munch on fish in droves. So, he created Fat Bear Tuesday (a nice riff on Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday”). On this contrived holiday, he asked visitors to Katmai to look at pics of some brown bears from the park, before and after they gorged on salmon. People would vote for the bear they felt had better prepared for hibernation.

To make the idea even more fun, they bracketed a single-elimination tournament, hoping to find the bear paragon of fattening up.

In that first year, an ursine beast known as Bear 480 took the title. Bear 480 is better known as Otis.

Fat Bear Tuesday and its tourney were such a hit inside the park that the rangers decided to take it to the internet.

In 2015, Fat Bear Tuesday became Fat Bear Week, as the voting stretched over the course of seven days. The tradition became a viral sensation.

To qualify for the tournament, a bear must patrol a 1.5-mile stretch of Brooks River that is lined with webcams. The cameras must capture a bear ingesting sockeye in both summer and fall. The point of the exercise is not to find the largest bear but to identify the bear that stocks up the best. A transformation from lean to plump is key. Voters get to see the before-and-after photos, watch videos of the bears hunting, and read biographies of the competitors.

All the bears have numbered identifications, but some have received fantastic nicknames. The winner of 2015’s contest was the aptly named Beadnose. Otis had edged Beadnose in the 2014 semifinals, but Beadnose garnered revenge in the Finals the next year.

Your 2015 champion

Undeterred, Otis roared back to the champion’s throne in both 2016 and 2017.

Beadnose nabbed a second title in 2018.

In 2019, a bear named Holly became the third individual to win the competition. In 2020, a new challenger emerged, threatening to establish hegemony: Bear Force One. However, the old champ, Otis, rose up in 2021 to nab the tourney for the fourth time, an unprecedented accomplishment. Bear Force One, estimated to weigh about 1,400 pounds, prevailed in 2022, which allows him to enter the 2023 event as the champion and odds-on favorite to repeat.

Other wonderfully monikered bears vying for the tournament title in 2023 include Chunk, Grazer, Bucky, and Electra. Bear Force One has a lot of momentum heading into this year’s event, but never sleep on Otis.

In 2021, the park added a new division to proceedings: Fat Bear Junior. In this competition, cubs face off for the crown of best-fattened babies. The inaugural win went to Bear 132’s cub. It’s easy to see why!

Bear 132's cub before yummy salmon - NPS Photo/C. Spencer
Bear 132's cub ready for winter - NPS Photo/C. Spencer

The 2023 edition of Fat Bear Week begins on October 4.

Check the Further Reading and Exploration section below for all the relevant links and information you’ll need to participate in this crucial tournament.

Few people have the ability to watch these majestic creatures in the flesh. The next best thing is to catch them on webcams. Fat Bear Week is a great way to raise awareness and promote conservation. As Explore.org puts it on the voting webpage: “Fat bears are successful bears. They exemplify the richness of Katmai National Park and Bristol Bay, Alaska, a wild region that is home to more brown bears than people and the largest, healthiest runs of sockeye salmon left on the planet.”

What better way to honor these grizzlies than to virtually vote on their feasting? Will Otis be the first bear to win five times? Will Bear Force One extend his dominant stretch? Or will a darkhorse, er, darkbear candidate emerge to shock us all?

Further Reading and Exploration

Katmai National Park – Official Website

Fat Bear Week – Katmai National Park

Fat Bear Week 2023 – Explore (VOTING PAGE/MEET THE BEARS)

Fat Bear Week Live Chat – Explore

Time to Get Jiggily With it, Fat Bear Week Is Upon Us – Smithsonian Magazine

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