I’ve long dreamed about watching grizzly bears snatch salmon swimming upstream to spawn, so my recent visit to Katmai National Park in Alaska ranks as one of the best days of my life.
After taking a 30-minute bear education class at the park (“Do not cheer when a bear catches a salmon”), I got to ogle real-live grizzlies, in the wild, gorge themselves on the foot-long fish.
Two big bears perched on the falls, using their thumb-sized toenails to snag leaping fish. A third sat in the churning water below, waving its furry, anvil-shaped head back and forth looking for salmon. All around, bears stuck their heads underwater, looking for dinner, then belly flopped on top of them to stun them. The captured fish were quickly shucked, like corn on the cob, and eaten with glee.
Roughly 2,200 bears live at Katmai National Park, about 170 miles west of Anchorage. Starting in June, many of those bears congregate at Brooks Falls, where they eat dozens of fish a day and pack on weight for their upcoming hibernation.
If you can’t make it to Alaska, you can still watch the action via live stream cameras at https://explore.org/livecams/brown-bears/brown-bear-salmon-cam-brooks-falls. And in a few months, you’ll be able to help pick the champion of the annual Fat Bear Week competition.
The bears I saw two weeks ago are relatively slim compared to what they look like by the time the single elimination bracket contest kicks off in October.
Tune in for Fat Bear Week
Over the course of seven days, and concluding on Fat Bear Tuesday, people around the world can pick which bear should get the Fat Bear crown.
The online contest started in 2014 but has boomed in popularity since then. In 2021, nearly 800,000 votes were cast, according to park officials, who say the contest celebrates fat bears and Katmai’s healthy ecosystem.
That fat is important. The bears spend all winter in a den, where they don’t eat or drink and shed up to a third of their body weight. To survive, they have to eat a year’s worth of food in six months, according to the park’s website.
At Katmai they can do just that.
Dates of this year’s tournament style bracket have not yet been announced. Check for updates at www.fatbearweek.org.
Besides the main Fat Bear contest, rangers have added a Fat Bear Junior bracket for what they call “chubby cubbies.” Online chats and events are also part of Fat Bear Week.
One of the contest’s perennial favorite, Otis, who has won the competition four times, showed up late this year, sparking worry among fans, who are quick to comment on a text thread beneath the livestream of bears feeding at the falls. He finally made an appearance in late July, to the relief of observers.
Last year’s winner, Bear 747, aka Bear Force One, weighed an estimated 1,400 pounds as voting wrapped up.
According to rangers, males weigh 700 to 900 pounds in mid-summer. During the peak salmon run, they’ll eat 30 or more fish a day, adding more several hundred pounds to their frames. By fall they’ll tip the scales at 1,200 pounds or more.