In Southwest Alaska, hulking brown titans strolling around with bellies full of salmon can only mean one thing: Fat Bear Week is here.
Late summer and early fall in Katmai National Park and Preserve is a glorious time for the estimated 2,220 brown bears that inhabit the 4 million acre park. Katmai is also home to the Brooks River, where thousands of salmon swim from June to September.
As the park’s brown bears prepare for hibernation, they have one thing on their minds: eat as much of that salmon as they can and put on weight.
The national park first celebrated giant bears by holding Fat Bear Tuesday in 2014, where people could vote on which bear looked the fattest. The pageant’s popularity skyrocketed, turning a single day into a week-long celebration that has continued to captivate fans across the country ever since.
“Fat Bear Week has become a highly anticipated event,” Lian Law, the park’s visual information specialist and Fat Bear Week manager, told USA TODAY. “This is a fun competition, it has a good dose of humor and we learn a lot.”
Law added that people do more than participate in the March Madness-style competition. He said he’s seen people create campaign posters for their favorite bears, make music playlists for them and even throw parties to watch the bracket. When some people head to the park, they go hoping to find their favorite bear.
“It really never ceases to amaze me how the fans respond to it,” Law said. “People are really invested in not only Fat Bear Week, but our bears in general.”
While the competition is fun in nature, Law said Fat Bear Week allows the park to inform fans about the challenges bears face. An abundance of salmon is important for survival, the park says.
When bears enter hibernation, they can lose up to a third of their weight as they do not eat or drink, relying on their fat reserves to sustain them through the winter. Cubs also have high mortality rates because of hunting challenges, so having more food available helps them.
“We can highlight all kinds of challenges bears face as they live their wild, natural lives,” Law said. “It’s the reason we have Fat Bear Week in the first place.”
Meet the Chonk Champion: 480 Otis, your 2021 Fat Bear Week Champion and four-time winner
I will see: Two bear cubs caught in a fight outside a cabin while the mother bear watches from afar
The celebration began last week when the park hosted Fat Bear Week Junior, its second time doing so. The winner was 909’s Yearling with over 14,000 votes.
The main event is scheduled to begin on Monday when the park announces which bears will compete for the right to be the 2022 Big Bear Week champion, with the competition running from October 5-11.
Last year, nearly 800,000 total votes were cast as 480 Otis won its fourth title. This year, the goal is one million.
The popularity may increase this year, but in reality, they have no idea that they are celebrities. The winning bear gets nothing, but if they ever find out about their fame and glory, Law said they wouldn’t be arrogant.
“They probably don’t care at all. They’re like, ‘Oh, we’re all fat bears, so we’re all doing great.'”
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.