After a summer of opulence and excess comes the lean time—the long, dark winter, when resources must be hoarded and stretched. No one knows this better than the fat bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve.
After a few months of plucking salmon from glittering rivers by the thousands and making snacks out of berries, herbs, and small mammals, Alaska’s brown bears have, by now, roughly doubled their body weight in preparation for the long sleep of hibernation. The fatter the bear, the better the odds of surviving Alaska’s punishing winters, which last from roughly October to March. Important, yes. But the fatter the bear, the better their odds of taking home a prize of equal or greater value to securing their own survival: being crowned the victor of Fat Bear Week by a community of fat bear admirers that’s among the most wholesome places on the internet.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly when the humans started loving the fat bears, but the Katmai park rangers started noticing the intense interest the pound-packing Ursus arctos generated in about 2014, when they began printing out before and after photos of some of the 2,000-odd bears that roam the park so that visitors could vote on one to be crowned the chunkiest. As the contest’s popularity and renown surged, it eventually expanded into its current, digital format, which allows anyone with an internet connection to vote for the beefiest bear in a single-elimination bracket tournament. This year’s tourney began last week (with the addition of Fat Bear Junior), and Fat Bear Week culminates on the contest’s final day—Fat Bear Tuesday—when a winner is crowned the “Fattest Bear” of the Brooks River.
Humans’ intense love for the beefy bears has given rise to a loving and dedicated internet fan community that coalesces on the Facebook page for explore.org, a nonprofit group that maintains several live nature cams of the Brooks Falls brown bears. Prodding at this subculture to try to better understand what, exactly, it is about the bears that keeps the humans so transfixed garners sweetly obvious answers, like trying to ask someone to describe why they smile when riding a rollercoaster or like the taste of cake.
“When I’m watching the bears, I find myself going to a tranquil place. It’s incredibly beautiful and peaceful,” one woman, Secret Meier, said via Facebook Messenger. “I laugh watching Otis, who’s much older, as he sits in what I call, affectionately, his office. He waits for the salmon to jump near his face and he actually falls asleep in the water when he’s not eating. His antics make me laugh out loud. I call Otis ‘my main man.’ He’s definitely a favorite.” (Otis has made it the semifinals, and voting is still open if you would like to back Meier’s main man.)
Tricia Kubicek, a teacher based near West Des Moines, Iowa, described watching the rotund bears on the live cams the same way someone might talk about watching John Candy doing a pratfall.
“The bears are really funny, especially when you watch them stumble down the falls or swim from below the surface,” she said. “Laughter is truly the best medicine.”
Humans also know about the trial of a long, dark winter, both real and metaphorical. In the real world, the days get shorter, the darkness encroaching on your office window at 4 p.m. It’s enough to wish there was a way to store rays of sunlight into our subcutaneous tissue. Metaphorically, too, this moment can feel like a harsh winter, largely owing to the ongoing pandemic that shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
In that regard, the bears at peak plumpness are a reminder of all that is right in the halcyon days of summer. Their waddles, their often languorous behavior, the way their bellies can touch the ground, the gathering of community at the Brooks River falls. These are scenes of plenty, ones that fat bearophiles want to hold onto.
In a Facebook message, Kubicek said that she came across the fat bears for the first time after a fellow teacher added a link to one of the live cams in a Virtual Calming Room—a resource teachers at her school had set up for students to help them cope with pandemic anxiety with things like relaxing music and mindfulness techniques. She became almost immediately hooked on observing their ursine antics, watching carefully to see how the bears interacted with each other and studying their personalities from thousands of miles away.
“It seemed like everyone was facing tough situations during the pandemic, and this was a way to relax and stay connected to each other,” Kubicek said. “Our human world is so complex and often polarizing, but the bears are a symbol of interconnectedness.”
Kubicek isn’t the only one to discover that watching the bears has provided a much-needed escape from a pandemic that forced people to isolate themselves from their own communities at precisely the moment the urge to reach out for companionship might have been overwhelming. Kelly Arl, a public school teacher from St. Louis, Missouri, said that after two years of what she described as a “real whirlwind of garbage,” observing the bears—and getting caught up in the excitement of their online fans—has given her something to focus on outside of her covid-19-related stresses and responsibilities.
“Between schools shutting down entirely, making school happen virtually, handling online and virtual students at the same time, and now making school work with very strict health guidelines, my entire life since March 2020 has been overwhelming, and the burnout is very real,” Arl said. “I’m starting to feel like I can finally take a breath, and having Fat Bear Week to focus on and get excited about during those breaths is a real joy.”
“This must be what people who care about sports feel like when their team is advancing toward a championship,” she added.
On a given day, explore.org’s live cams might catch the Katmai bears chowing down on a fish with their cubs, swimming in waist-deep water, or otherwise lumbering along with their newly-acquired pudge, doing bear stuff. On one recent feed, fan-favorite bear Otis, a finalist in this year’s competition, was captured stoically fishing as a snowstorm swirled around him.
While the bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve are thriving, their cousins even further to the north, polar bears, have become the poster children for the deleterious effects of climate change. A rapidly warming Arctic and oil and gas development are making it all but impossible for their numbers to stabilize. This, too, is a reason people love Fat Bear Week: It provides some relief from the deluge of Bad Climate News that so often hounds us, and an opportunity to connect with the natural world in a way that doesn’t involve facing tough facts or fighting off ecological despair.
“I think there’s a lot to love about Fat Bear Week other than adorably pudgy animals,” Jana Arnold, a 28-year-old from Seward, Arkansas, said. “It’s a celebration of a healthy ecosystem, which is not something that exists for many animals these days. As someone who loves the National Parks Service and is acutely aware of climate change, it means a lot to see a thriving ecosystem and fat happy bears.”
Still, for some, loving big bears isn’t even about anything as lofty as escaping work-induced malaise or fighting off the creep of climate panic. Sometimes, to see a fat bear in all its glory—steeling itself against the elements, with a biological certainty that more dark days are ahead—is to see yourself.
“I am Team Grazer because she reminds me of how I see myself,” Kubicek said. “I am a fierce Momma Bear who is willing to take on opposition from much bigger forces if it means I am able to feed and care for my cubs.”
The winner of Fat Bear Week will be announced on October 5 on the National Parks Service’s website. You can check out Earther’s definitive rankings for Fat Bear Week 2021 here.