In southwest Alaska, the bulky brown titans wandering around with bellies full of salmon can only mean one thing: Fat Bear Week is here.
Late summer and early fall at Katmai National Park and Preserve is a glorious time for the estimated 2,220 brown bears that call the 4-million acre park home. Katmai is also home to the Brooks River, where thousands of salmon swim from June through September.
As the brown bears of the park prepare for hibernation, they’ve got one thing on their minds: eating as much of that salmon as they can – and packing on weight.
The national park first celebrated the gigantic bears by putting on Fat Bear Tuesday in 2014 where people could choose which bear looked the fattest. The contest’s popularity took off, turning a single day into a weeklong celebration that has since continued to captivate fans across the country.
“Fat Bear Week has become a highly anticipated event,” Lian Law, visual information specialist at the park and lead for Fat Bear Week, told USA TODAY. “This is a fun competition, it has a good dose of humor and we get to learn a lot.”
Law added people do more than just take part in the March Madness-style competition. She said she’s seen people create campaign posters for their favorite bears, make music playlists for them and even have watch parties for the bracket reveal. When some people make their way to the park, they go in hopes of spotting their favorite bear.
“It really never ceases to amaze me to see how 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. The abundance of salmon is important to bear survival, the park says.
When bears go into hibernation, they can lose one-third of their weight since they aren’t eating or drinking, relying on their fat reserves to keep them going throughout the winter. Cubs also have high mortality rates because hunting challenges, so having more food available helps them out.
“We get to highlight all sorts of challenges that bears face as they live out their wild and natural lives,” Law said. “It’s the reason we have Fat Bear Week in the first place.”
Meet the champion of chonk: 480 Otis, your 2021 Fat Bear Week Champion and four-time winner
The celebration began last week when the park hosted Fat Bear Week Junior, the second time doing so. The winner was 909’s Yearling with over 14,000 votes.
The anticipated main event kicks off on Monday when the park announces which bears will be competing for the right to be the 2022 Fat Bear Week champion, with the competition running from Oct. 5-11.
Last year, there were nearly 800,000 total votes casted as 480 Otis won his fourth title. This year, the goal is one million.
The popularity may increase this year, but in reality, they have zero idea they are celebrities. The winning bear doesn’t get anything, but if they ever learned about their fame and glory, Law said they wouldn’t be arrogant.
“They probably don’t care at all. They’re just like, ‘Oh, we’re all fat bears, so we’re all doing great.'”
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.