The first time Mike Fitz saw a bear in the wild, in 2007, he did what he was trained to do: He made a lot of noise.
“You can read and listen to all of the advice — it helps prepare you mentally, but at the same time I’m thinking, ‘Oh, that is a bear in front of me, looking at me,’” Mr. Fitz said. “What am I going to do now?”
This particular bear, on top of Dumpling Mountain in Katmai National Park in Alaska, however, was not exactly an imminent threat. The bear was about a quarter-mile away from Mr. Fitz, and his yells across the vast landscape barely made a dent. “I hadn’t figured out that making noise is appropriate in certain situations,” he said. “The bear probably heard me and thought, ‘What is this two-legged creature doing?’”
The encounter proved to be a formative moment for Mr. Fitz, and for millions of bear fans around the world. Mr. Fitz is the founder of Fat Bear Week, now in its ninth year. What began as a way for Mr. Fitz, a former park ranger, to engage with visitors to Katmai has “spiraled.”
“I thought it would be a quirky thing Katmai could do every year, and it is, but I did not expect it to be this popular,” he said.
Last year’s contest attracted more than 600,000 votes; the winner of Fat Bear Junior 2022, a spinoff competition for cubs that ran on Sept. 28 and 29, received more than 69,000 votes. No. 909’s Yearling was crowned champion and is now moving on to the adult competition.
Fat Bear Week has become a weeklong, bracket-style elimination contest that pits the bulkiest bears of Katmai National Park against one another. The public votes on a website hosted by explore.org, where Mr. Fitz is now the resident naturalist, and the bear with the most votes advances to the next round. Voting began on Wednesday, and a king or queen of the pack will be named on Oct. 11, otherwise known as Fat Bear Tuesday.
Katmai National Park spans 4.1 million acres and is about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage. It is home to more than 2,200 brown bears, one of the largest populations of the species in the world.
In 2021, the park identified 93 bears within a 1.5-mile radius of Brooks River; contestants must use the river (where the park has webcams) both in the early summer and in the fall in order to qualify. This year there are 12 bears taking part in the competition, including 480 Otis, the reigning champion. Park rangers use their yearlong observations to create biographies for each animal, noting their complex palates (freshly caught salmon versus scavenged leftover salmon), personality traits (playful or defensive) and, of course, heft.
The park service also provides before and after pictures. The photographs show the sometimes extreme transformation bears undergo in preparation for winter. The fatter the bear, the happier its winter hibernation will be.
While Fat Bear Week is not a beauty pageant, it is “a celebration of the bear’s success,” Mr. Fitz said. The competition this year remains “wide open,” and that’s in part because of the smattering of salmon available to Katmai’s bears. The Brooks River area is part of Bristol Bay, which had the largest sockeye salmon run on record this year with 74 million salmon, Mr. Fitz said.
Mr. Fitz frequently used before and after photos as part of his interpretive efforts at Katmai when he was a ranger from 2007 to 2016. But with the introduction of webcams in 2012, bear fans began posting their own comparisons on the webcam’s message boards. Mr. Fitz decided to turn it into a competition.
“I suddenly realized that people are connecting with these animals just as strongly as they would in person,” Mr. Fitz said. “People learn more about brown bears and the salmon this way, and hopefully that translated to a greater sense of care for this remarkable place, as well as for bears and salmon around the world.”
When Mr. Fitz first began observing bears at Katmai, one of the things that struck him most was that the bears “were known individuals.”
“At Brooks River, we get to know the bear across the seasons,” he said. “That opened my mind up to watching animals as individuals rather than just populations. I fell in love with them.”
He also fell in love with Katmai.
“The scale of the wilderness in Alaska and in the Katmai region was something I had never experienced before,” he said. “Some of the more amazing backpacking experiences were wandering around the park and not seeing anyone for several days.”
Back at camp, park rangers would rely on a tried-and-true method of spreading information about the park’s bears — gossip. Mr. Fitz and his fellow rangers would talk about which bears were associating together, who was courting whom, who was dominant.
Now, instead of gossiping in person, Mr. Fitz is like the rest of us, placing bets on the best and largest anglers in Katmai from the comfort of his home in northern Maine.
“When I was a park ranger, I tried to at least have a facade of neutrality, but we all have bears that we like to watch,” he said. “Personally, I do try to look at the extenuating circumstances for the bears and what they had to go through to get fat.”
This year he has officially endorsed 747, whose girth is comparable to that of the airplane model. According to the park service, the male bear has become one of the largest brown bears on Earth, perhaps weighing as much as 1,400 pounds. (Mr. Fitz is also watching 856 and 32 Chunk vie for dominance.)
“It might be some time before we see a bear as big as 747,” Mr. Fitz said.
Perhaps the most curious thing to observe during Fat Bear Week this year, one producing a lot of chatter among park employees, has been the relationship between 909 and 910, sister bears who both have cubs of different ages playing with each other (910 is not in the running this year). “They’re hanging around, playing with each other, letting their cubs play with each other. There has even been an instance where we observed one cub going over and scavenging fish from the other club,” Mr. Fisk said. “That is something a mother bear would not normally tolerate. It’s a really unique experience.”
Fat Bear Week gives Mr. Fitz the opportunity to use descriptors like “remarkably fat,” “chunk” and “chubby” on a regular basis, something that the bears’ many fans do. But he prefers adjectives like “individualistic,” “insatiable,” “competitive” and “intelligent” to describe Katmai’s bears.
Felicia Jimenez, a park ranger at Katmai who is enjoying her first Fat Bear Week in Alaska, has developed a fondness for the phrases “Titanic tummy” and “blimp of a bear.” But don’t worry, she said, the bears have absolutely no idea of their larger-than-life fame or status.
“There are millions of people watching the bears throughout the year,” she said, “and they’re just munching on salmon and barely even notice.”