The arrival of Fat Bear Week marks a joyous occasion on the internet. It's a welcome distraction from life's woes. It's a time to appreciate nature, even though the nature you're appreciating is thousands of miles in one of the most difficult national parks to reach in the United States.
You may be asking yourself, "What is Fat Bear Week, anyway?" It's a single-elimination tournament from Sept. 29 to Oct. 5 between brown bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve that are fattening up for winter. The last two beefy contenders battle in the finals (on the internet, not real life) for the title of Fattest Bear on Fat Bear Tuesday.
Fans can vote every day between 12 p.m. and 9 p.m. Eastern time to determine which bears at the Brooks River have done the best job feasting on sockeye salmon.
But the week has grown to be so much more than an online competition, according to those involved.
"Fat Bear Week is really a celebration of success and survival," said Lian Law, a visual information specialist at Katmai. "We really highlight the resilience and adaptability of bears here."
The growth of the event rivals that of the girth of the bears it celebrates. In 2019, more than 200,000 votes were cast in the competition. Last year, that number swelled to more than 600,000.
"I did not anticipate it growing as much as it has," said Mike Fitz, a resident naturalist with explore.org, who helped start the increasingly popular competition when he was working as a ranger for Katmai National Park. The first iteration of the competition took place in 2014 as a single-day event. It was so well received that Fitz expanded the concept to give the people what they wanted: more fat bear content and fanfare.
"First and foremost, there's no wrong way to celebrate Fat Bear Week," Law said. But for the most enthusiastic fans, participation goes far beyond voting for their fat bear of choice. Here are more ways to get involved this year.
— Get deeper into the competition
Stacey Schmeidel, a college communications director who volunteered at Katmai in 2018 and 2019, said getting to know the bears is the most rewarding part of the event. Before her time volunteering, she developed a love of the bears by watching the bear cams.
Instead of only wondering if Otis is indeed the fattest, "what is Otis's story?" Schmeidel said she would ponder. "What obstacles did Otis have to overcome?"
To get invested in the contenders, start at the explore.org's Fat Bear Week site.
"We have a whole host of events posted on the BearCam during that week, which we encourage the public to tune into," Law said "You can ask questions during a live Q&A chat on YouTube, we have a special Fat Bear Week play-by-play, which tends to be a favorite. It's essentially a sports commentary on what we see live on the BearCam."
Then there's Fitz's book, "The Bears of Brooks Falls," which is beloved by competition enthusiasts and will give you more context on the bears and their environment.
— Campaign for your favorite contender
Should you fall in love with one particular competitor, let your loyalty be known.
Fat Bear Week's biggest fans campaign for their favorites by posting about them online, joining the Fat Bear Week Bracket Tournament Facebook group, and creating memes and campaign posters for their chosen bear. They record original songs and dances, or rewrite popular songs to show their support. Some change their profile photos to their contender's picture.
"There are fans out there showing off their creativity and enthusiasm and humor in ways that are just really incredible," Law said.
— Channel your inner fat bear
Fat Bear Week super fans get into the spirit by channeling the brown bears. They eat salmon and berry pie, and they drink honey beer. They bake bear-paw cookies and bear-claw pastries, and they decorate bear-shaped cookies with the names of their favorite competitor.
Beyond eating and drinking, some fans fashion themselves "bear hair" hairstyles, forming two buns on the tops of their head to resemble bear ears. Others make Fat Bear playlists to share with each other.
— Plan a trip
Those who get seriously hooked on Fat Bear Week can take their fandom to the next level by visiting Katmai National Park to see the bears in real life. Fitz said he has "met many, many people who discovered Katmai National Park through the webcams and maybe perhaps through Fat Bear Week as well," who end up making the pilgrimage to the remote destination in Alaska.
It is not an easy or cheap task. One of the most hard-to-get-to national parks, Katmai is only accessible by plane or a combo of plane and boat. Tours to see the bears can be very pricey, too.
That hasn't stopped people such as Schmeidel and others from making their Brooks Falls dreams come true. Fitz's tip is to plan out a trip as far in advance as possible, not only for financial reasons, but also because it's incredibly competitive to reserve a place to stay. Some travelers have reduced the cost of the trip by camping instead of staying in a lodge.
— Host Fat Bear Week programming
While Fat Bear Week can be enjoyed on your own, fans love the camaraderie of the competition.
Many host virtual and in-person BearCam watch parties. Fat Bear Week betting pools are popular, and proceeds sometimes go to a charitable effort such as the Katmai Conservancy. Some people go so far as to make a trophy for whoever guesses the year's winning bear.
Teachers can share explore.org Fat Bear Week curriculum with their classes. "We do a chat where we encourage teachers to submit student questions ahead of time, and then we'll answer those in a chat and give a shout out to the school," Law said. "So it's really a good way for educators to become involved as well."
The more people who learn about the bears, through Fat Bear Week or any time of year, the better, Law said. It's an important way to get conversations going about national parks and conservation.
"It really does raise awareness about their ecosystem," Law said. "We are holding these Brooks bears and the Brooks area as an exemplary illustration of a healthy ecosystem. . . . So, yes, we are celebrating the success of these bears, but it's important also not to forget that not all the bears and all of those places are so fortunate."