America may feel like a divided society but one thing is guaranteed to unite the nation each year: Fat Bear Week, a seven-year-old competition held in October to choose the fattest, most gorged and hibernation-prepared bear in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska.
Fat Bear Week, which closes Tuesday and gathered 650,000 voting participants last year, is the creation of Explore.org, an online showcase for wildlife webcam videos, nature films and photographs that, it says, “creates a portal into the soul of humanity”.
Few of its innovations have proved as compelling as the portly bears of Alaska – divided into adult and junior categories – in the moment of their most impressive condition after feasting on salmon running through the Brooks River before settling into a den for their winter’s rest.
Which bear comes out on top next week will be decided when voting is tallied . A web page that tracks the numbers suggests the 2021 competition is on track to beat last year’s total of enthusiastic watchers.
And the bears are fat. Very fat. Adult entries include Chunk, an “adult male with narrowly-set eyes, a prominent brow ridge, and a distinctive scar across his muzzle.” Even at his leanest, he carries “substantial fat reserves, especially on his hind quarters”.
Bear 747 is described as “the river’s most dominant male bear” having yielded to bear 856, who dominated for several years. He is most often found fishing near the small waterfall known as the “jacuzzi,” or near the far pool.
Unlike usually segregated human sports, fat females are grouped in among the males for Fat Bear Week. They include Holly, a medium-large adult female with blond ears, blond fur, and pale, tan-colored claws, who is a fan favorite. “By early autumn, she is usually very fat,” notes the site’s experts, and “resembles the shape and color of a toasted marshmallow”.
There’s also the pretty, young and very fat blondish bear called 131, whose “claws are dark with tan-colored tips” and who, in early summer, has the appearance of smoky eye-rings.
Katmai National Park and Preserve, located in the south-west corner of Alaska, is home to approximately 2,200 bears, according to a 2004 survey.
Amber Kraft, interpretation and education program manager at the Katmai National Park and Preserve, told CNN that there were more than 90 individual bears, not including cubs, along the Brooks River, the 1.5-mile waterway where the salmon run.
Kraft said a dominant adult male might catch and eat more than 30 fish a day and weigh over 1,000lb by the time winter comes. “When you look at how much weight bears need to gain to survive six months of famine, you can’t help but cheer them on,” she said.