Katmai National Park and the Quest to Become the Fattest Fat Bear

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Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park has all the characters and the storyline of a successful television drama. There’s a loving mother and her innocent children, the old fat granddad, an instigator, a dictator, and a fish-stealing villain. Each day is a new episode in the quest to become the fattest bear in Katmai.

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Katmai National Park has a remarkable history and incomparable landscape that is enough to satisfy any adventurer. But it’s the extraordinary wildlife that intrigues most visitors to embark on the journey into this protected wilderness. A piece of land just slightly larger than Connecticut, it is home to an estimated 2,200 brown bears. The unique ecosystem and abundant salmon drive these normally non-social animals into close proximity with each other ---and with you. When you’re close enough to realize that their giant claws are longer than your fingers, you’re quickly reminded that you’re not the top of the food chain.

Holding true to many of the best places in Alaska, you can’t drive there. After many hours and three commercial flights, we landed in King Salmon, almost 300 miles southwest of Anchorage. From there you have two options to get to your final destination: water taxi or float plane. We opted to add a flight with Katmai Air to our itinerary. Just after 1:30PM we had a quick flight safety briefing on what to do if something goes wrong, but unlike the previous commercial flights, there was no monotonous demonstration on how to use a life jacket. Minutes later we took off from the Naknek River runway. For the plane’s tiny size (a snug fit for the 7 people it carried), the ride was surprisingly smooth. Awe-inspiring views engulfed every window.

Twenty minutes later, Lake Naknek came into view, and its vibrant turquoise color felt unreal, like an overly saturated photograph. Even before stepping foot on the National Park soil, we spotted three brown bears at the mouth of the Brooks River. This is going to be wild. It felt like a scene out of a National Geographic documentary (…and it will be. They started filming on our last day there). Our plane joined the other dozen brightly colored float planes on the shoreline. We unloaded ourselves and daypacks from the float plane and were quickly directed to the Visitor’s Center where we would attend “Bear School”. This is where you learn the best practices of living in a bear’s world…how to eat lunch, and not become lunch.​


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Float planes parked along the beach of Lake Naknek as we landed

Our larger bags were scheduled to arrive later that afternoon, leaving us plenty of time to see the lower river platforms before setting up camp. We quickly stashed our snacks in the food cache, as to not entice any bears with our tasty Cliff Bars. We grabbed our cameras and headed towards the bridge that spans the lower river. I started counting bears, and quickly lost track. They were everywhere. We spent the afternoon getting acquainted with the area, setting up camp, eating dinner, and heading back to the lodge for a post-dinner happy hour. Being able to lounge by the fire, bug-free, with a beer in hand was a real treat at the end of the day.

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A solo bear walks along the spit at the mouth of Brooks River.

The campground at Brooks offers a gear cache and a food cache to safely store any food and gear. There are a few three-sided shelters with picnic tables to eat covered from the elements. An outhouse restroom and gravel paths between all the tent sites round out the amenities. The whole campground is surrounded by an electric fence to dissuade the bears from entering. It was well noted during our orientation that the fence is to be considered bear-resistant, and not bear-proof. This warning came with the instructions to follow all of the “normal” bear-country camping rules (e.g. don’t take your midnight snack to your tent). Overall, the accommodations were quite comfortable.​

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Cooking dinner in the campground picnic shelter and morning views of Lake Naknek from behind the electric fencing

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Ranger Station or scratching post?

Coming from the East Coast, it was natural to rise early. Our first morning we made a quick breakfast and hit the trail to the falls before any day trippers had arrived in the park. Brooks Falls is an easy 1.4 mile walk from the campground. The flat trail winds through the forest, parallel to the Brooks River. Bear encounters on the trail are quite common, though we (luckily) didn’t experience any. At the end of the trail, there is a long boardwalk about 10 feet high that leads to two platforms. One platform sits 400 feet downstream of the falls (the Riffles Platform) with a panoramic view of the river. The more popular Brooks Falls platform sits 10 feet off the river’s edge, right at the base of the falls. Our early morning trek paid off; we had the whole platform to ourselves for a full hour before anyone else arrived. There were five well-fed bears in the river when we arrived and a couple more joining shortly after. The falls creates a natural barrier that tends to collect fish, and thus one of the most popular fishing spots on the river. We watched each one catch fish after fish, quickly understanding how they got to their massive size.
Two dominant bears argue about who gets the best fishing spot.
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Two dominant bears argue about who gets the best fishing spot and another bear fishes from "the lip"

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View from the Riffles Platform. The coveted pool on the right side is the main attraction for the largest most dominant bears.

Over the next 3 days we watched these bears in their natural habitat. It didn’t take long to start recognizing their individuality. Each bear can be recognized not only from their physical characteristics, but also their habits and behaviors. Bears at Brooks are each assigned a number for scientific and education purposes (kind of like tagging, without the physical tagging). The data collected is used to learn about the bears and their behaviors, and about how humans are impacting their behaviors and movements along the river. This information is imperative to making decisions on modifying park rules and management of the river.

Each bear seemed to have their own favorite fishing technique. Snorkeling seemed to be a favorite among most bears in the lower river. This is exactly as it sounds, where the bear is looking underwater for salmon --- nothing but its ears and the top of its head above water. Then there was the fish-thief. This bear would lurk in the shadows and come out when another bear had a successful catch. As entertaining as his fishing techniques were to watch, we silently cheered when he didn’t succeed. We watched mama bears share food with their cubs, and cubs learning to fish on their own. The biggest bears seemed to be the laziest, they would just sit (or stand) and wait for a fish to come their way. Pretty much the epitome of “work smarter, not harder”. It’s these top fishers that will be in the running for Fat Bear Champion 2022.​

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Momma bear shares her catch with her cub.

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One bear with a successful catch from "the lip" of the falls.

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The fish-thief is unsuccessful. The fisherman chows down right in front of him.


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Bear stripping the salmon as a gull begs for scraps.

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Bear giving the same look I give the waitress when she asks me a question right as I take a bite.

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A successful catch at the falls

Many of these numbered bears acquire nicknames from either the rangers and staff at Brooks, or more recently, from an online community that follows the “bearcams” on explore.org. Of course, there is some controversy that comes along with naming a wild animal. Regardless of the controversy, it doesn’t stop people from having their fan favorites. The Katmai National Park has put together an amazing reference book of most of the “regulars” on the river: Bears of Brooks River 2022.

Of course, I walked away from our trip with my own favorites:
#480 Otis, is quite the celebrity. His teddy bear like face, and massive size is one that anyone could fall in love with. Not to mention, he’s one of the oldest bears on the river, estimated to be in his mid-twenties…makes you wonder how far his extended family sprawls.

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#480 swimming in the lower river

#747 is aptly named for his jet airliner size. It’s hard not to appreciate his success in weight gain each year. In 2019, the park used a technology called LIDAR to scan several of the bears. Originally designed to scan rock formations and buildings to create 3D maps, this technology is utilized by the park to scan bears to approximate their volume, and from that, extrapolate an estimated weight. At that time, #747 was estimated to weigh 1,400 lbs.

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#747 wading (waddling?) into the river


My final favorite of the trip is not an individual, but a family…often referred to as the Beadnose family. #409 Beadnose was the Fat Bear Champion of 2015 & 2018. However, this story is about her offspring, #909 and #910. Each one has grown and has a cub of their own. #909 returned from hibernation in 2021 with two cubs (unfortunately by early summer she only had one), and her sister #910 was spotted with a single spring cub this year. Normally cubs leave their mothers at 2.5 years old, early in their third summer. Once they leave the safety net of mom, bears become independent, solitary animals. However, throughout this summer, #909 and #910 have been seen co-parenting their two young offspring. Often times, both cubs are seen with only one mother in sight, almost as if they're babysitting the other's cub. The cousins play together like litter mates, wrestling and regularly engaging in a good game of “bitey-face”. Generally, very protective of their food, a bear won’t share with anyone but their own cubs. But this sister-duo was caught on camera sharing a freshly caught salmon --- as a family of four. This truly unique dynamic of survival was incredible to see firsthand, not to mention the cuteness overload when the cubs were playing together.​

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Cousinly love

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The cousins wrestling.


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A game of "bitey face" breaks out.

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For our final hours in Katmai, we had lunch in the lodge. A buffet of salad, wagyu hot dogs and hamburgers, warm soup and dessert provided a nice respite from dehydrated backpacking meals, and the beer cheese soup is worth an honorable mention. We chatted with friends we made during our stay, swapping bear stories, and waited for our float plane's arrival. With final aerial views of the river and the falls, our plane whisked us back to King Salmon to start the journey home.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering, how does one become a Fat Bear Champion? Fat Bear Week is March Madness of the bears. It’s a weeklong single elimination tournament to celebrate the bears success preparing for winter. The rangers at Katmai create a bracket for the public to vote on. The bracket hosts a before and after photo of each bear, showing off their bountiful weight gain throughout the summer. This year’s voting will take place between October 5th and 11th. At the end of the week, on Fat Bear Tuesday, a single bear will be named the champion.

For anyone that is interested in voting click on the link below on each day of the voting period:

Fat Bear Week 2022 | VOTE









Need more bears? Check out my Adobe Album: Katmai National Park - September 2022

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About author
Lauren
About me: Born and raised in New Hampshire, I’m an east coaster who fell in love with the mountains early in life. I don’t remember when I started skiing, but it was sometime before I reached grade school. When snowboarding took off in the 90s, I traded in my skis for a single plank. 12 years later, I came back to skiing and now split my time 50-50 between the two. I tolerate groomers, get giddy on powder days and have an addiction to springtime-mashed-potato bumps.

Height: 5'5"
Weight: 135 lb +/-
Age: 36
Preferred Terrain: Japan. Wide open tree runs and endless powder.
Current Gear: Armada Stranger w/ Attack 14GW; Nordica Santa Ana 100 (v. 2019) w/ Marker Griffon; Nordica Santa Ana (v. 2016) w/ Marker Kingpin 10; Völkl RTM 84; Völkl One w/ Marker Griffon; Boots are Atomic Hawx Ultra 115W
Skiing Style: Playful, bouncy and dynamic, with a side of assertiveness.

Replies

Thanks for sharing your adventure. It was a terrific read. Wonderful photos.
 
Yes. Thank you. However, a bunch of the photos didn't load. Is there something I can do to see them?
 
@Turoa Kiwi may need to change your handle. Turoa ski field is finished. Hopefully someone buys it out of bankruptcy and keeps it going.

Katmai kiwi sure has a nice ring to it though.
 
Great photos! Just the other day I watched a video on the 2022 Fat Bear competition (747 was the winner) and to follow that up by reading your first hand account was really fun.
 

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