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Survival of the Fattest

Fat Bear Week 2020—one of this country’s greatest inventions, a tournament celebrating gigantic Alaskan beasts—came to a close on Tuesday night when a true chunker was awarded top prize. But as always for fat bear enthusiasts, it was all about the massive journey.

Katmai National Park and Reserve/Ringer Illustration

The wait is over, the weight is on, the votes have been counted, and the bears—they are so fat.

It’s time to check your scales at the park entrance and pack your cooler full of lean protein, because the world as we once knew it is crashing down with unprecedented haste, and you may not have worn a pair of pants with belt loops in the past six months … but the latter just means you’re celebrating Fat Bear Week appropriately, and the former can be briefly displaced from your mind by pictures of sinewy apex predators transforming themselves into absolute Omega-3 fatty units solely for the benefit of their health.

If you’ve not yet heard of Fat Bear Week, allow me to introduce you to the nation’s happiest holiday, the world’s sassiest sport, the fiercest festival of fat, and the cutest carnival of carnivora.

Each October, Katmai National Park in southern Alaska hosts a Fattest Bear contest, explicitly to celebrate what a good job its brown bears did of plumping up that year. Because just like it’s my job to reward myself with a fun-size Twix every time I successfully send one single email while working from home, it is a bear’s job to eat an entire year’s worth of food over the course of June to October in order to become roughly the size of an Airstream before going to sleep for the entire winter. And boy, you will not believe what a good job they do! We’re not talking stole-one-too-many-picnic-baskets, did-these-rolls-of-Charmin-get-smaller-or-is-it-just-me, or do-you-have-this-scratching-tree-in-a-larger-size kind of fat. No, we’re talking, salmon-gorged, Butterball-just-got-a-new-brand-ambassador, oops-my-feet-stopped-touching-the-ground, gonna-need-a-bigger-forest FAT.

Once in hibernation, a fat bear is not only the general size and shape of a walk-in refrigerator, but its body also kind of … functions like a walk-in refrigerator. Inside their dens, brown bears don’t eat, they don’t drink, and they don’t do any of the things normally caused by eating or drinking. Their only source of sustenance and hydration is the fat stores that they worked so hard on all summer. And so ultimately, Fat Bear Week is a celebration of ursine success—because fat bears are healthy bears, and healthy bears are happy bears, and happy bears are single-handedly holding half of the internet together right now.

Each year, Katmai National Park determines its 12 fattest bears, arranges them into a March Madness–style bracket, and invites the public to vote on their visages via the Fat Bear website. Fat Bear Week is a single-elimination, no-holds-barred, completely subjective tournament—and on Tuesday night, the best, fattest bear was crowned.

In 2018, Fat Bear Week garnered national attention when its photogenic winner, 409 Beadnose, ate herself into a perfect circle.

Since becoming a feminist icon of body positivity (it’s much harder for mother bears to gain weight and keep it on while raising cubs), 409 Beadnose has not shown up at Brooks Falls again, but she left behind a legacy of lusciousness. It’s been a great year for fat bears because the salmon flowing through Brooks River in Katmai National Park reached unprecedented levels at peak bingeing season, creating one of the fattest Fat Bear Weeks on record.

And even though COVID-19 prevented bear enthusiasts from visiting Katmai National Park for most of the prime bingeing season, the park was already way ahead of its time in transitioning the IRL fat bear experience to a more accessible virtual one. For years, the most efficient way to get to know the fat bears of Katmai National Park has been by checking in with the Brooks Falls livestream—a pun, if ever there was one—where, come June, viewers can watch fat bears gather at the river to fish for salmon en masse.

U.S. National Park Service/Naomi Boak

The Brooks Falls brown bears livestream is how the viewing public knows who hangs out in the prime salmon spots like “the jacuzzi” (I see you, 747 and Otis) and who sticks to the lip, relying on their angler skills. It’s how we know who’s ready to battle it out for a little more dominance around the falls (151 Walker and 812—they grow up so fast!) and who doesn’t need to because their dominance is evident (ahem, 856). It’s how bears like 480 Otis and 32 Chunk develop loyal fan bases for being an adorable old grump and kind of an enigmatic weirdo, respectively.

Before you choose to stan Fat Bear Week for the fat bears alone, it’s important to note that you do have to eventually choose between the fat bears—a nearly impossible decision if you don’t come up with some voting criteria. Some fat bear fans respond to sheer size and dominance on the river, while some just want to see who looks fattest in their picture; other fans are voting on which bear gained the most girth from summer to fall, while others still (like myself) are interested in the extenuating circumstances, like new mothers who manage to supersize both themselves and their cubs.

That kind of subjectivity makes for wild upsets and unpredictable underdogs in any Fat Bear Week, but especially in 2020 when more fat bear fans were watching and voting at home than ever before.

The Fattest Faceoffs of Fat Bear Week 2020

Round 1: 32 Chunk vs. 719

Famous for his floor-grazing belly, and highly descriptive name, 32 Chunk always has a chance to go far, but facing off with Katmai royalty right off the bat is no joke. Bear 719 is the daughter of 2019 champion 435 Holly, and a new mother herself. Bear 719 is known for being a particularly playful bear along the Brooks River, and it’s true what they say: Fat blond bears really do have more fun.

Unfortunately, “fun” burns far too many calories, so blondie 719 didn’t stand a chance against a sensible brunette like 32 Chunk this year. But she’s still an excellent fat bear, and she did such a good job building her belly.

Round 2: 747 vs. 812

If Fat Bear Week were a contest about finding your light, then 812 would have it made in golden hour. But it’s not—it is, and always has been, a contest about bears getting very fat. Which, coincidentally, 812 is also great at! Known for being a charmer on the river, 812 regularly persuades larger fat bears to grant him access to their prime fishing spots, helping him to grow perfectly pudgy.

Between being camera-ready and socially adept, 812 definitely has a future as a fat bear influencer, or maybe even a contestant on the next Fat Bear season of Survivor. However, as a Fattest Bear contender this year, he simply could not match 747 who, as a reminder, looks to be about the size of a one-bedroom apartment with enough space for a makeshift podcasting studio in the coat closet.

Round 2: 32 Chunk vs. 435 Holly

What an upset! As if on a personal mission to single-handedly upend a fat bear family dynasty, 32 Chunk bested last year’s winner in Round 2: the Queen of Corpulence herself, 435 Holly.

U.S. National Park Service/Naomi Boak

Holly always does a great job of getting fat, and after birthing a spring cub in her den over the winter, she plumped up both herself and her cub for hibernation. But this is probably where I should mention that while Holly is indeed one of Katmai’s most titled Fat Bear winners, 32 Chunk has spent the past few years garnering a rather prolific fan base himself, called the Chunkamaniacs. (No, really.) They’re in it for the sturdy stature, they’re in it for the chubby name, and they’re in it for Chunk’s unique rejection of prototypical alpha-bear masculinity.

Chunk’s general giantness should make him one of the most dominant bears in Katmai, but our guy just wants to play with other like-minded bears and patiently wait downstream for other male bears his size to cast off their wasted salmon bits. And, look at him! He plumps up juuust fine using these new-age methods …

What are you gonna do when Chunkamania comes for you, Holly?

U.S. National Park Service/A.M. Gantt

Well, probably get extremely fat in order to survive the winter just like always. But sometimes that isn’t enough when Chunk’s notorious pear-shaped frame balloons out to resemble a full Harry & David gold-wrapped dozen.

Semifinals: 747 vs. 151 Walker

Over the past few years, fat bear fans have watched 151 Walker grow from a fat bear boy into a fat bear man, not just in size, but in willingness to use that size to his advantage, gaining more dominance on the river as a large-bodied bear.

Does it make me a little sad to know that Walker has traded his formally playful nature in for considering his 401K options and talking to a guy about a life insurance policy? Surethese bears mean almost everything to me right now. But does it also make me happy to know that Walker has worked so hard to survive hibernation and probably got chunky enough to survive two hibernations? Of course—I actually don’t think I could survive my own winter if I knew otherwise. Ultimately, watching nice young man Walker get less votes than the gargantuan stalwart 747 in the semifinals is kind of like watching your present self lose to your future self: Everyone’s a winner as long as they’re working toward the same goal, and that goal is to become a very fat bear.

Semifinals: 32 Chunk vs. 128 Grazer

Given everything else that 128 Grazer has going for her, it would not have been at all surprising if this was her year. Our girl is a fearsome mother with Leslie Knope energy who stays preemptively standing up to adult males far larger than her. Plus, Grazer is one of the most skilled fisher-bears on the Brooks River, and in 2020, she managed to get both of her spring cubs looking nice and portly while also taking herself from sinewy predator to grizzled butterball. Grazer is proof that when you’re a fat bear, you really can have it all: a family, two dozen salmon a day, and a few hundred pounds of weight gain in a handful of months.

But those Chunkamaniacs, they really know how to get to the polls.

Fat Bear Tuesday Faceoff

The sheer size of this year’s tournament was never more evident than on Fat Bear Tuesday, when two titans of their industry faced off in the finals—chubby snout to chubbier snout, big booty to bigger booty, hindquarters to hind-dollars.

Those titans, of course, were bears 747 and 32 Chunk, and their industry is getting so fabulously fat that their bodies are no longer shapes so much as general geometric suggestions.

Bears 747 and 32 Chunk are two of the very biggest boys in Katmai National Park, inspiring fear, fawning, and fan edits alike. So for voters who appreciate fatness in its most literal form from their fat bears, deciding between these two roly-polys was like splitting a heart in half.

But there could only ever be one, and with over 650,000 votes cast throughout Fat Bear Week 2020, and after years of being a fat bear bridesmaid ...

U.S. National Park Service

Mr. Bear Force One himself, 747—a.k.a. the Boeing Boulder, a.k.a. the Bearplane, a.k.a. the Straw That Stirs the Falls—was finally, and rightfully, named Fattest Bear 2020.

Boy, has he earned it—747 is truly a fat bear. Suspected to be one of the largest bears living today, 747 isn’t so much a brown bear, as the brown bear. Some people might wonder how a bear so clearly fat, who has made it to the Fat Bear finals so many times, has never had more of a leg up in this contest that specifically honors fat bears. But I think it’s precisely because of 747’s innate size-privilege that Brooks Falls’ curviest constant has never won. (Also, I don’t think 747 could lift his leg up right now if you paid him 1 million salmon.)

We can always count on 747 to be there next year, and we can always count on him to be fat. But after two iconic years of mama bears 409 Beadnose and 435 Holly impressively transforming their skinny frames post-cubs, Fat Bear Week voters were finally ready to celebrate a bear who was simply born fat; born to bear the title of Fattest Bear 2020.

U.S. National Park Service/R. Taylor

Bear 747 didn’t ask to be born the chubbiest checker on the board, or with a silver salmon in his mouth … that’s just the way the cookie crumbled (under the weight of his sedan-sized backside). And maybe this year, we just needed one choice to be the simple one—and that choice could be voting for the fattest bear to be named Fattest Bear 2020.

Jodi Walker is a freelance pop culture writer with bylines in Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, and Texas Monthly. She writes about The Bachelor franchise at absurd length in her newsletter, These Are The Best Things.