The most wonderful time of the year is truly here. On Wednesday, Katmai National Park and Preserve’s annual Fat Bear Week will officially kick off — a tribute to the months of gorging that bears must undertake to stock up on body fat before the coming winter famine and hibernation. This year, people will vote on 12 of the heftiest and hunkiest bears that have travelled to the park’s Brooks River to feast on salmon this summer, including last year’s winner “Number 435,” also known as Holly.
Fat Bear Week has been an annual official event at Katmai National Park in southwestern Alaska since 2014. The park is larger than some states and known for its vast, isolated wilderness and rich resources that have made it an ideal home for brown bears to live. The Brooks River in particular is one of the most plentiful natural sources of sockeye salmon in Alaska, a fish that’s endangered in some other freshwater regions that it populates. That can make the river a practical all-you-can-eat buffet for the more than 2,000 bears that are estimated to live in the park. These bears put on mass between June to mid-October before their annual hibernation.
“Fat Bear Week has grown beyond my wildest expectations when I first conceived the idea while working as a ranger at Katmai National Park,” Mike Fitz, a former ranger at Katmai National Park and Preserve, said in an email. “I think there are several reasons why people seem to love Fat Bear Week. It’s positive and provides a brief reprieve from the negativity that often dominates our social media feed. It highlights known, identifiable bears at Brooks River, which people can watch every day on the Explore.org bearcams.”
Hibernation isn’t just taking a really long nap, though. Hibernating animals slow their metabolism down to a crawl, which in turn lowers their heart rate, breathing, and usually body temperature. Bears are still capable of doing things like giving birth while hibernating, but most bodily functions slow or cease during that time as well. The point of hibernation is to conserve as much energy as possible during the harshest of times — which is the winter for Alaskan brown bears.
Brown bears aren’t full hibernators, since they can wake up from their hiding spots during the winter if need be and some populations living in warmer areas can go without hibernating at all. But the winter usually takes a toll on them, as they tend to lose a third of their body weight during the season. That means that every extra pound of body fat they can store beforehand can be the difference between life and death, and it’s usually a fierce competition for resources between the normally solitary animals. So although the participants of Fat Bear Week may not know it, their entry into this year’s race, documented through constant video and photo surveillance, is a sign that they’re crushing it in the game of life.
“More than anything, Fat Bear Week is an annual celebration of Katmai’s robust, healthy ecosystem and the success of brown bears who live within it,” Fitz said. “Our world is greatly wounded by extinction, habitat loss, and climate change. These issues are worsening. Most of Katmai National Park is within the Bristol Bay watershed, which is home to the last great salmon run on Earth. Fat Bear Week provides us with the opportunity to reflect upon and witness an ecosystem functioning at its fully realised potential.”
The story of last year’s winner is especially heartwarming, as is Holly’s return to the competition. According to the park, Holly was once a foster parent to bear 503, a rare example of adoption in the wild. Last winter, following her win, she went on to deliver and nurse a cub of her own, and both cub and mother survived through hibernation. Sadly, her older age — at 20, she’s approaching the typical life expectancy of brown bears — and the need to keep her cub protected while feeding means that it’s unlikely she’ll be one of the fattest bears this year. But it seems that Holly has lived as long and fulfilling a life as a bear can, which is all any of us can ask for.
The “March Madness” style of Fat Bear Week will pit two bears against one another in a single elimination bracket, with one to two rounds of voting each day until the finale on October 6. Voting will be open each day from 2 a.m. to 12 p.m. AEST and details are available through Explore.org.