Long Live the Fat Bear King

While those of us in the Lower 48 went about our 2020 lives over the last week (we won’t remind you what that looked like, it was possibly the most 2020 week of 2020), the majestic queens and kings of the North waged an epic battle in order to determine who among them would claim a championship in the greatest sporting spectacle since the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating competition.

Fat Bear Week in Katmai National Park and Preserve. 

On September 30th, twelve fat bears entered the arena. On Tuesday, October 6th, one fat champion emerged.

Katmai National Park and Preserve is the fourth largest national park in the United States, encompassing approximately 3.7 million acres along Shelikof Strait in the Gulf of Alaska about 290 miles southwest of Anchorage. It is one of the remotest of all U.S. national parks, accessible most readily by boat or plane. And it is larger than Connecticut.

Bear 747 in full, fat glory. Photo credit: Mike Fitz / Digg

Originally designated as a national monument in 1918 in order to preserve the aftermath of the 1912 eruption of Novarupta, the federal government elevated it to national park status in 1980. According to the official website, Katmai protects “the volcanically devastated region surrounding Novarupta and The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes…9000 years of human history and important habitat for salmon…”  What else?  Bears. Thousands of them. Huge brown ones. 

We won’t punt ourselves into the weeds of the argument about whether these bears are a subspecies of the Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi) or, our favorite, the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). Save that for another day. On this day we celebrate gigantic bears. Bears that frequently reach a peak weight of more than 1000 pounds. Exactly how much more is hard to say. Do you want to be the one to weigh them?  Where does a thousand pound bear go for lunch?  Wherever it wants.

The National Park Service has organized this ursine exhibition of calorific competition on the Katmai National Park Facebook page since 2014. This year it entered the big leagues of the world wider web on Explore.org and saw coverage from such esteemed outlets as Thrillist, Mashable, The Verge, and The Washington Post. Maybe you’ve heard of them. They’re no Bear-Tracks.org, but still.

What’s the point of this contest (besides the obvious, that is)?  Fellow Bear Tracks contributor Shawn Bailey, a fan of bears and sports, and Bears in sports, put it best, “Fat Bear Week in Katmai National Park combines the thrill of a chalkless March Madness bracket with a healthy fascination about one of North America’s most charismatic predators. And unlike the dangerous ‘Bear Lunch Counters’ of early Yellowstone, this event helps educate national park enthusiasts on the protein-packing efforts of Alaskan grizzlies from the safest of distances.”

(Bear Lunch Counters are real, by the way. Click that link.)

See, the bears of Katmai will enter their dens to hibernate any day now, certainly no later than the end of next month. And as we’ve illustrated here on Bear Tracks and the rangers of Katmai explain, bears are singularly focused eating machines. During the summer and early fall, they might consume 90 pounds of food on any given day. Then they’ll get up the next morning and do it again.

Alas, this year’s tournament has ended. A new champion reigns over the majestic landscape of Katmai, at least until he crawls in his den for a well deserved months long nap. But, with the wonders of the internet, you can still get to know the competitors here, in all their glory. Really, have a look. There’s before and after pictures of all twelve bears. It’s impressive.

And who is that champion? Winning the final contest on Fat Bear Tuesday by a margin of 47,055 votes to 21,854 votes, bear 747, perhaps the largest bear along the Brooks River right now, defeated bear 32 ‘Chunk’ to ascend the Fat Bear throne for 2020. After a final four performance last year, this is 747’s first outright victory, weighing in at an estimated 1400 pounds just over a year ago, park staff believe he is every bit that large or larger this year.

Have a look at the Katmai bear cams here. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see 747 in action over the coming weeks before he settles in for the winter along with the rest of his worthy competitors. And for more great bear pictures, check out Bear Tracks on Instagram.

It’s certainly been a year. Bear Tracks editor Melissa Thomasma mused that when 747 wakes from his next hibernation it will no longer be 2020. If we’re lucky it will be a year when threats to the Endangered Species Act decrease; climate change and the problems associated with it will earn the attention they’re due. Maybe the world will be a better place for bears and all of us. Wouldn’t it be nice, just one time, if we could hibernate along with them?