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‘Tis the season to be jolly, and I’m not talking about Christmas. It’s Fat Bear Week, a pure and wonderful treat for people who need a break from the harsh realities of life.
The competition champions the brown bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve as they complete their transformations from scrawny to elephantine for hibernation. With the internet watching via live Bear Cams, the contestants go beast mode on the millions of sockeye salmon that run from Bristol Bay down the Brooks River.
Then it’s up to voters to interpret the “fattest.”
“There’s no real set criteria that you’re supposed to vote on,” said Mike Fitz, a resident naturalist with Explore.org who started the competition in 2014. “You could vote on just simply the largest bear, or look at relative fatness or consider the extenuating circumstances of each bear’s life like the challenges of raising offspring.”
For the uninitiated, here’s everything you need to know about the week, and how to celebrate accordingly.
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What is Fat Bear Week?
Think of Fat Bear Week as a March Madness meets Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, but for a bracket of 12 brown bears in southwest Alaska’s remote Katmai National Park and Preserve.
It’s a single-elimination tournament where fans vote online for their favorite contenders as they finish beefing up for winter hibernation. The last two units battle in the finals (on the internet, not real life) for the title of Fattest Bear on Fat Bear Tuesday.
But the larger goal of Fat Bear Week is to promote conservation efforts to preserve places like Katmai.
“In a time where most stories of conservation might be doom and gloom, Fat Bear Week truly allows us to celebrate our bears and count my ecosystem overall,” said Lian Law, a visual information specialist at Katmai.
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When is Fat Bear Week?
It’s happening Oct. 5 to Oct. 11, but Fat Bear Week takes place on different dates each year.
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How do you vote in Fat Bear Week?
Fans can vote on Explore.org’s website every day of the competition between 12 p.m. and 9 p.m. Eastern time.
Since the competition started in 2014, participation has grown much like the bears do each summer: exponentially. The first Fat Bear Week drew a couple thousand votes, while 2021 brought in nearly 800,000.
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How can you watch live bear cams?
To watch the bears in their natural habitat, tune into Explore.org’s live cams. There are two live cams capturing the scene at the Brooks River – one of the falls (the prime fishing spot) and one with two camera angles near the outlet of the river, and a few more positioned around Katmai.
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Who won last year?
Last year’s crown went to one of the park’s oldest bears, 480 Otis, making him a four-time winner.
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How did Fat Bear Week start?
Fitz helped start the competition when he was working as a ranger at Katmai National Park. The first iteration of the competition took place in 2014 as a single-day event: Fat Bear Tuesday. It was so well-received that Fitz expanded the concept to give the people what they wanted: more fat bear content and fanfare. Now, we have the adult competition, plus Fat Bear Junior – a two-day contest starring the park’s chubby cubs.
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How much does a Fat Bear weigh?
The average midsummer weight of an adult male in Katmai is estimated between 700 to 900 pounds.
Several large brown bears in Katmai can weigh in at over 1,000 pounds by the fall. Older male brown bears are significantly larger than females.
“They’re sometimes just half as big as an adult male,” Fitz said. “And that’s because of the energetic costs of raising clubs.”
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How do they weigh the Fat Bears?
“We can only make educated guesses on their body size for Fat Bear Week,” Fitz said. “Studies have been done in the past where they would tranquilize a bear and weigh them and get average body sizes . . . but the Fat Bears, they’re not handled at all. They’re not tranquilized or radio collared.”
However, Alaskan scientists are pioneering the use of terrestrial laser scanning systems to measure the volume of Katmai’s bears.
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How many brown bears are in Katmai?
Fitz says the last official count of Katmai’s bear population was done in 2007, with an estimate of about 2,200 bears.
“There’s probably been some changes since then . . . give or take a couple hundred,” Fitz said. “Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen as few as 40 individual bears at the river and as many as 110 individual bears per summer.”
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What are other ways to participate in Fat Bear Week?
There’s a schedule of events for fans. Park rangers answer fan questions about the bears through blog postings, tweets, online ranger talks, and forum discussions. “We also have additional presence in the YouTube commenting area as well as live tweeting as well, so that we can have more interaction with the fans,” Law said.
But the biggest fans celebrate beyond the official events and bear cam viewing.
They follow the Twitter discourse with the hashtag #FatBearWeek and join the spirited Fat Bear Week Bracket Tournament Facebook group. They campaign for their favorite competitors with memes and campaign posters. They turn the week into an educational experience at schools and libraries. They read Fitz’s book “The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River.” They bake bear-shaped cookies and eat salmon, listen to competitor-inspired Spotify playlists. They have Bear Cam watch parties and betting pools.
The list goes on.
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Can you attend Fat Bear Week in person?
You can travel to see the fat bears in person, but getting to Brooks River, where the fat bears spend much of their pre-hibernation feasting time, is no simple trip.
The area’s limited accommodations sell out a year in advance. The cheapest option is to camp, but it’s competitive to score one of the few campsite spaces when they become available Jan. 5 at 12 p.m. Eastern time. You can also try reserve a cabin at Brooks Lodge through a lottery system, or a room at Katmai Wilderness Lodge.
If you can’t stay near the Brooks River overnight, Naomi Boak, media ranger for Katmai National Park and Preserve, says travelers can come for a day trip, or visit other bear-watching destinations, such as the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge, where the largest known gathering of brown bears in the world takes place.
It’s not recommended to go during the actual tournament as it’s usually past peak bear viewing time, but the weeks leading up to Fat Bear Week are a popular time to make the difficult and pricey journey.
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