Fat Week is great – its fans are even better

Christy Na Mee Eriksen experienced Fat Bear Week during her “Summer of Bears.”

There were sightings of bears in her neighborhood in Juneau, Alaska, that summer of 2020, including one that took chocolate from her garage. He didn’t care. In March, he had lost his father, “he was a great man,” he says. The bear, in a way, reminded him of his father. “So I started calling him Pop because he was always there,” Eriksen told The Verge. Later that year, he adopted a dog named Bear.

“It’s like a poetic invitation”

“And then I came across Fat Bear Week, and I was like, ‘That’s my bear song’ … it was like a poetic invitation,” says Eriksen, the author. Currently, he is also a “Fat Bear Week reporter” writing stories for the Anchorage Daily News about this year’s matchups. “[Fat Bear Week website] was proud to participate and 747 Bear Force One flew past [Bear] 856,” he wrote in the Daily News yesterday, announcing the winner of the first round. “The program has expanded today as some of Brooks Falls’ biggest names are coming out to play.”

In short, Fat Bear Week is a March Madness-style popular tournament for Katmai National Park’s famous brown bears. It started in 2014 as a fun way to promote the park and its bears. Since then, the event has grown into something of a pop culture phenomenon. The annual bracket competition will culminate in the top bear being crowned on “Fat Bear Tuesday,” taking place on October 11 this year. Devoted fans are committed to fighting for their favorite bears, making their case through free charity and campaign posters in Facebook Groups that are active throughout the year. Fan-favorite bears even have their own Fandom pages.

Photo: Katmai Conservancy / Katmai National Park and Preserve

The competition is held to celebrate healthy, fat bears. They need a lot to go into hibernation. The bears’ lovable lumps have helped some of their loyal fans through tough times, too. As a result, fans bring their love of wolves abroad to share with their families, at work, and even in other areas of life.

Andrea Bacino, a children’s librarian from Northglenn, Colorado, also experienced Fat Bear Week in 2020 when she and her family were stuck at home during the pandemic. “I was working from home and trying to keep the kids entertained,” says Bacino, a mother of three boys. He entered the “Bear Cam” river of Katmai National Park. “Being able to see nature on a live camera, you feel like you’re traveling a little bit. You also get the peace that comes from being in the forest.”

By 2021, Bacino was a full Fat Bear fan working for his favorite behemoth of the year, Otis. She made campaign buttons for him at the library. “OTIS FOR FBOTUS,” the buttons read, FBOTUS standing for “Fattest Bear of the United States.” For the past several years, she has created a Fat Bear Week “event center” at the Anythink library, where she is a youth career guide. With one laptop set up to watch Katmai’s livestream of Brooks Falls, where brown bears come to dig for salmon. There’s a laptop for voting, a print-out of information on why it’s important for bears to multiply, and poster cards for some of the top contenders. That includes Otis, a four-time champion whose post this year, is “a foodie you can trust.”

When Otis won the championship last year, Bacino baked bear cookies to celebrate. “I can’t say they came out looking good,” Bacino says. “They really looked crazy.”

“I can’t say they came out looking like a bear… They really did.”

“I love Otis,” Bacino says. But this year, he hasn’t quite made up his mind about who he’s rooting for the most. “Also, you know, I’m like wolves raising cubs,” he tells The Verge.

His oldest son is seven years old, and after the competition comes to an end, he will keep the conversation about Fat Bear Week going with him throughout October and early November. “It gives me a little chance to talk to him about, ‘Oh, there are still bears, and they’re not all asleep’ – to have a little conversation about climate change, it’s getting warmer later in the year.” It’s a little lesson in cause and effect, he hopes. “What we do affects the water, and it changes the fish, and it changes the bears,” he says.

Eriksen is looking for one of Katmai’s most popular bears this year, Holly. Holly has had several litters over the years, and her newest child went on her own this spring. This left Holly free to live “the boxing life this summer [which] gave her a chance to focus on what she wants,” Holly’s official Fat Bear Week biography reads.

But here’s a pro tip: some of the best bear descriptions come from fans. Jo Ely, a school social worker in St.

Ely’s lyric goes: “She can fish / She can fight / Having the time of her life / Oooo, look at that bear / Look at that scene / Diggin the fat bear queen.” Holly was the champion in 2019 and is looking like a strong contender again this year.

Ely says he got his passion for writing parodies from his older brother, who he remembers listening to “Weird Al” Yankovic when they were growing up. When her brother officiated at her wedding in 2020, he incorporated Jo’s love of fat bears into the ceremony – acknowledging Ely’s husband for supporting her “while looking for fat bears on the internet.”

Ely won the Fat Bear Week bracket competition as part of a Facebook Group for fans last year. The winner must choose which charity would receive the proceeds from the $10 buy-in to participate in the contest. Ely chose Katmai Conservancy, a non-profit organization partnering with Katmai National Park and Preserve and the online portal Explore.org to put Fat Bear Week together.

This year, the Facebook Group has grown significantly to accommodate the love bracket. It now has 27.7 thousand members. But it still has a sense of community, members tell The Verge. And some fans have taken it upon themselves to continue the tradition by starting their own brands. Eriksen has the smallest bracket going to Alaska. He asks for $10 to $100 in donations to shop there, and the money will go to buy local salmon that will be given to homeless shelters.

Philanthropy aside, Eriksen had no qualms about using his writing for the Anchorage Daily News to promote Holly this year. “I don’t want to rub people the wrong way (cough, 435 Holly) but I would like to see (cough, 435 Holly) some of these fat women (cough, cough, 435 Holly) find their way to the crown, eg 435 Holly,” she wrote earlier this week.

“I don’t judge the rubric by just being fat. For me, that’s the biggest character strength I’m really looking for. What’s their fat story? Holly has a very thick story about being a mother and caring,” Eriksen tells The Verge. Holly adopted an abandoned child in 2014 and raised him alongside her other children. This has meaning for Eriksen, she says, who is not only a mother but has also written about being a Korean child. “The way we see wolves and tell their stories, I think it says a lot about who we are,” says Eriksen. “What we care about and value and vote on is metaphor.”

You can vote in Fat Bear Week every day until October 11th at https://explore.org/fat-bear-week.

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