Fat Bear Week celebrates bulky bears

Sep 28, 2021

This image from Fat Bear Week's website shows Otis, a "heavyweight champion" in the annual event, in a before-and-after collage for the 2021 season.
Credit Katmai National Park and Preserve

Wednesday marks the beginning of a distinctly Alaska holiday—a whole week of celebrating chubby ursine creatures. That’s right—it’s Fat Bear Week.

Fat Bear Week is an informal competition based on the brown bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve, which lies directly west of Homer on the Alaska Peninsula. The park is home to some very rich salmon runs and great habitat for brown bears. Every year, the brown bears wake up in the spring after hibernating and fasting all winter, and they’re typically very skinny. By fall, they are heavy, and that’s a good thing—the more fat a bear is able to pile on, the better they can survive the winter. Bears in Katmai can double their weight in just a few months before going back to sleep in the fall.

Since 2014, Katmai National Park and Preserve’s rangers have been posting “before and after” pictures of bulked-up bear bodies and asking the public to vote in a March Madness-style bracket for which bear wins the ultimate crown for corpulence. It’s a surprisingly popular event. Keith Onstot and his friends track it every year.

"I think this is one of those events that’s so weird it brings together people of all different walks of life, ages, backgrounds, countries, to just share in how much we love this weird thing," he said.

They’ve actually started their own betting bracket, in a fantasy-football style, with a $10 buy-in. Winner with the most correct picks week after week gets to choose which charity all the money gets donated to at the end.

"That’s what we kind of strive for in the pre-tournament, to get people to donate to Katmai," he said. "The way the tournament works is that the winner dictations where everybody directs their donation to. So we ask that they pay a $10 donation if they’re able to the charity of the winner’s choice."

It’s just for fun, but it’s raised some good money over the years. Participants end up cheering for one particular bear or another—Onstot said he’s a fan of Bear 747, last year’s defending chunky champion.

There’s a purpose behind it, too. The public engagement with the park’s ecology encourages education and investment in the bear population, which depends on healthy salmon runs and habitat. Katmai is a fairly remote, roadless park, that requires a plane to get to and backcountry skills to traverse. Not many people visit it every year, but plenty of them watch the bear cams set up at Brooks Falls, and plenty vote for which bear is the fattest every year. Onstot gavecredit to the Katmai park rangers for their effort.

"Between their programming and their bear cams, Fat Bear Week, they really do a heck of a job promoting a national park that in so many ways is in accessible to most people, whether it’s just distance or remoteness or the financial resources required to get there—they really do take that special piece of land and make it available to all of us," he said.

Onstot’s bracket takes place in a public Facebook group, under Fat Bear Week Bracket Tournament, and has about 12,300 members. You can vote for your favorite bear each week on Katmai National Park and Preserve’s Facebook page starting tomorrow. You can also vote on fatbearweek.org.

The competition ends October 5, or as fans know it, Fat Bear Tuesday.

KDLL's Sabine Poux contributed reporting.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabethearl@gmail.com.