Ranger Mike Fitz was at the front desk of the Katmai National Park and Preserve’s visitors center in late September 2014, when he had the idea. Katmai, in southern Alaska, is known for its salmon and brown bears. In summer, fish by the ton barrel up the rivers, desperate to spawn, and bears stake out spots where they can grab and gobble up prey in order to pack on fat for the cold months to come. At certain prime fishing locations, cameras are set up to stream live video.
The “bear cams” attract a loyal online audience and generate a spirited comments section. On that late September day, Fitz was moderating the comments when he saw a diptych one viewer had posted. On the left was a “before” photo of a brown bear, slack-coated and skinny after months of hibernation. On the right was a photo of that same bear in September—it was larger by half, huge, supersize.
That gave Fitz the idea: Why not post a bunch of bear pictures on Facebook, showing the animals in their lean and enlarged states—and make it a competition? It could help answer the perennial and irresistible question: Which bear is the fattest? And, if the competition drew attention, Fitz could use it to educate people about the bears, the salmon, and the importance of conservation. So began what is now Fat Bear Week: seven days in the fall when viewers vote online, narrowing a tournament bracket of bears down to a single, corpulent victor.