I went to fat bear week, and all I got was cold hands!
Seriously, I got really cold hands, along with an amazing birthday week journey to Katmai National Park with friends for a joyful experience of wind, rain, snow and the sight of bears with swinging bellies sleeping, playing, and snatching end-of-season salmon from the Brooks River.
Fat Bear Week has become an annual internet social event via webcams and competition brackets that put some of the fattest bears in the public’s eye. This silly and essential contest helps people see what healthy bears look like and remember what the health of bears and their habitat requires. This year, over 800,000 votes were cast across all brackets during the weeklong contest.
I feel lucky to have seen so many of these fat bears in person—and I can tell you wholeheartedly that they looked broad and plump and worthy of awe.
Our group saw Otis just days before he became this year’s Fat Bear champion. He sauntered from fishing spot to fishing spot with his signature chill but purposeful focus and a massive belly that nearly dragged on the ground.
Otis won the first contest in 2014 and again in 2016 and 2017. As an old timer with missing teeth and injuries, Otis looked mighty skinny this spring, but his patience and fishing tactics paid off. What a difference a thriving salmon run makes!
We also saw fat little cubs, cute and shaggy, and Holly with her young one, blond and sassy. We watched a sow nap right outside the campground gate, and witnessed a bear get tangled up with a sow with cubs on the beach. It all worked out after the grumbling ebbed.
Visiting Katmai late in the season revealed how animals re-inhabit the spaces humans take up during the summer when thousands and thousands of people come to see bears fish at the falls. Once the lodge closes, the day trips wane, and only a few campers and staff remain, bears moved freely through areas with human structures and facilities.
For me, this meant feeling more connected with, rather than divided from, all the living beings that move through and rely on Katmai.
And, yes, it absolutely feels cool to share photos of fat bears in the background and creating that framing that puts it all in good light. It’s just as important, I think, to remember the smell of bears and salmon, the moment when you locked eyes with a fat bear negotiating your presence, the feeling of that massive boar walking below the platform built for your experience, and of course the cold hands.
It’s important to remember that we humans inhabit this circle of animal life, and that if we don’t do our part to protect it, we lose far more than a few selfies and awe shots to share with friends. We lose our way. We lose our understanding of how to care for the land and all the living things on it, including ourselves.
A fat bear is a healthy bear that will likely make it through the winter and emerge in the spring. It’s not here to take part in our contest, but to take part in the way Mother Nature works—the way life works.
Going to places like Katmai and seeing those fat bears only deepens my understanding of how we are part of the way things work, too.
Humans are not separate from the planet we inhabit or from all the other living things we live alongside. Losing connection with the land, the critters, the earth, and each other as human beings is the recipe for division and acrimony that thwarts our ability to make good decisions together about our health and the future. We have the power to change that.
May we all keep voting for fat bears by doing everything we can to protect them and the places they call home, the fish that fatten them up, and the living systems that contain and rely upon their presence.
PS. Thanks to supporters like you, we can continue fighting to protect Alaska’s land, water, air, wildlife and people!