It’s election week. Not just to decide who will hold local offices, but also to decide who are the fattest bears. Fat Bear Week, an annual tournament pitting the brown bears of Katmai National Park against one another, returns starting Wednesday. Each day — with the exception of Sunday — bears will battle for the hearts of the public until Fat Bear Tuesday on Oct. 10 when a winner will be crowned.
This year’s bracket — describing 12 bears and six days of competition — was revealed during a livestream Monday hosted by Mike Fitz, a resident naturalist with explore.org, as well as two rangers from Katmai National Park, Naomi Boak and Felicia Jimenez. The event celebrates the work bears do to ready for winter.
“Fat Bear Week is a celebration of success, adaptability and resilience,” Jimenez said. “Katmai’s pristine ecosystem is what allows that to happen.”
Katmai’s Brooks Falls, which are covered by livestreaming cameras available at explore.org, host around 80 bears each year, Fitz said. That makes choosing which 12 bears see competition difficult.
Boak said that the bears have to earn their place on the bracket. Of course, that means literally gaining weight, but she said it also takes a good story.
“Fatness isn’t everything,” she said. They’re looking to see obstacles overcome or innovative new ways of attaining girth.
The competition is subjective, they explained, fatness isn’t a simple measure of weight or girth, it’s a state of being for these bears — a measure of who is making the biggest impression as they prepare to sleep off the pounds this winter.
Each day’s voting can be done at fatbearweek.org, starting with the first two matchups opening Wednesday at 8 a.m.: 806 Jr. vs. 428 and 402 vs. 901.
Coming of Age
No bear earned a spot on the bracket more literally than 806 Jr., a spring cub and the youngest bear on the bracket. He qualified by emerging as the champion of last week’s Fat Bear Jr. Jimenez called him “massive and fluffy,” and said that this year he’s faced his own hardship in getting separated from his mother by being swept away over the falls, then finding himself in a testy encounter with a male — fortunately mom showed up to save the day.
Opposing 806 Jr. in the first matchup is Bear 428, a “pudgy, subadult female,” Fitz said. Her mother is Fat Bear Week veteran 128 Grazer, who provided guaranteed access to good fishing as a dominant female, Fitz said. This is 428’s first year flying solo, and being a subadult at the “bottom of the hierarchy” has its own challenges. Opportunities were no longer guaranteed, Fitz said, but 428 proved herself capable of seizing them.
The winner of that matchup will take on Bear 32 Chunk in Friday competition. Boak described Chunk as “enormous,” a “light bulb-shaped leviathan of a bear.” Historically, Chunk was playful, eschewing the dominant role he ought to have held on the river. This year, he’s come into his size and position, Boak said, truly one of the largest and most dominant bears on the river.
Bear 402 is a large adult female, Fitz said. She’s an “experienced, older mother bear,” in her late 20s and the mother of eight litters, more than any other in the area. Even this year she tows around a yearling cub.
Challenging the hardened matriarch is another mother, Bear 901, who this year is a first-time parent. Jimenez said 901 has persevered through her own hardship — she began the summer with three young cubs, but now is accompanied by only two. Jimenez said the third went missing and remains unaccounted for.
One of those mothers will emerge victorious on Tuesday, but they’ll have their work cut out for them when they match up with 480 Otis, “the bear who needs no introduction,” on Friday. Boak said that 480 Otis is “always a bear to contend with.” He’s the winner of the original Fat Bear Tuesday and a three-time winner of Fat Bear Week. Boak said he’s 27 years old, and is, with those years, “wise and patient. She said he came out of hibernation later than expected, skinny and frail, but quickly got to work landing up to 20 fish per day as one of the best anglers on the river.
Thursday, the second day of competition, will feature two more matchups, Bear 128 Grazer vs. Bear 151 Walker and Bear 284 Electra vs. Bear 164 Bucky.
Bear 128 Grazer, with the “gorgeous iconic blonde ears,” Jimenez says, is a tough bear and a tough mom. Grazer was on her own this year, and without any cubs hasn’t had to worry about providing for anyone but herself. Jimenez said that’s allowed for “massive gains.” Biographical information describes Grazer as a “particularly defensive mother” who preemptively challenged and attacked larger bears, even dominant males. This summer, “many other bears remembered her reputation.”
One of those bears who learned to give Grazer a wide berth is Bear 151 Walker, who Boak described as Grazer’s rival in fishing and rival on the bracket. Walker historically has been, she said, a “careful and shy bear” who fishes quieter areas away from the bigger bears. This year, he’s 16, in his prime, and “shy no more.” Boak says he’s learned to throw his weight around, and he’s been able to earn choice spots for the best fishing.
The winner of that matchup on Thursday will return to action on Saturday, but they’ll be facing off with a titan. Fitz said defending champion Bear 747 has been called “The Bearplane, Bear Force One, an Absolute Unit and The Incredible Bulk.” He said “few bears will ever grow as large,” and that in his prime, 747 may have been one of the largest brown bears on Earth. Part of the reason for that success is a “feedback loop” of skill and size. No bear will challenge him for fishing spots because he’s so big, and he’s so good at fishing that he stays that way.
New ideas meet old blood
Bear 284 Electra is easy to identify, Jimenez said, because of a distinct hump in her shoulders. She’s also a legacy bear, the daughter of Bear 708 Emilia, and the mother of Bear 901, who saw competition last year. Similarly to Grazer, Jimenez said Electra saw “really good gains” because she was only providing for herself this year.
Opposing Electra is Bear 164 Bucky, a 6-year-old young adult with fur on his brow that looks like a dent, Boak said. He fishes right under the falls, surrounded by the most dominant bears, but in an area that hasn’t ever seen consistent effort. Because of that innovation, his size has increased “enormously.” Boak said his “smarts” make him a worthy contestant, despite his youth.
The winner has to deal on Saturday with “a toasted marshmallow,” Fitz said. That’s 435 Holly, 2019’s Fat Bear Week Champion. Hers is a story with many different chapters, owing mostly to a string of cubs — some her own and some she’s adopted — that she’s raised. Though her story was defined by her motherhood, Fitz said she’s another living “a bachelorette’s life.”
A big day for big bears
There will be a break in voting on Sunday, but on Monday, the Final Fat Four will meet for semifinal matches, leading right into Fat Bear Tuesday, where a winner will be crowned. Each day, voting starts at 8 a.m., with the polls closing at 5 p.m.
Fitz encouraged fans of the fat bears to campaign with #FatBearWeek. Every one of the bears competing this year is “a unique specimen of success.”
“Be polite, but don’t be shy,” he said.
Jimenez says this year has seen lots of shifts in the hierarchy, but thinks “the ladies could give the males a run for their money.”
“We’ve got some really, really big ladies,” she said.
Boak thinks similarly.
“My heart is with the multitasking moms, whether they’ve got cubs or not,” she said.
Of course, it’s hard to count out some of the big boys — like Otis, Chunk and 747.
“There are many factors to consider,” Boak said.
For more information, and to cast votes each day, visit fatbearweek.org.