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Beefy brown bear (Ursos arctos) 480 Otis celebrates his impressive fourth win of Fat Bear Week in his "office" by chowing down on salmon. Photo by C. Spencer/National Park Service

Fair and Round and the Color Of A Toasted Marshmallow: Alaska's Chubbiest Fight It Out

Abby Zimet

The people - a record-breaking 793,000 voters because what else can you do in an endless pandemic - have spoken. After a fierce battle, alliteration-happy organizers have announced "the portly patriarch of paunch persevered to pulverize the Baron of Beardonkadonk" in the final match of #FatBearWeek 2021, giving brown bear 480 Otis an impressive fourth win in Alaska's annual contest to determine which chonky resident of Katmai National Park has bulked up the most for winter hibernation. The competition began 7 years ago as Fat Bear Tuesday after naturalist Mike Fitz noticed enthused fans commenting on the park's Facebook page - "What a difference a lot of salmon can make!" - about the bears' skinny, spring, before photos and their rotund, all-you-can-eat, fall ones. Deemed "a wild region" because bears outnumber people, the park's roughly 2,200 bears can be over 1,400 pounds - though weighing them is tricky - by the time they retreat into their caves or burrows. Park rangers spend months prepping for the contest, and photographers "essentially stalk" bears through the seasons at their favorite spots, often at the salmon-rich Brooks Falls. The event, which this year ran Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, features single-elimination brackets for viewers to vote online for "the fattest of the fat" in a sort of March Madness without the basketball. Billed as a "celebration of success and survival," the event highlights the bears' resilience, their pristine natural home, and the growing threats posed by climate change and development to a rich ecosystem functioning at full potential, with some of "the largest, healthiest runs of sockeye salmon left on the planet."

Fans are seriously into Fat Bear Week; so is Mike Fitz. Having spent years learning to recognize the bears and their habits, he compiles a  line-up complete with drama - "Last year's winner Bear 747 is still bulking up, but the current champ is highly competitive" - purple prose - "Will 812’s youthful zeal transcend 480’s tranquil technique?" - and lovingly detailed bios. Bear 812 has "crescent-shaped ears" and often licks his lips; 32 Chunk with his "distinctive scar across his muzzle" is dominant but "can also be enigmatic"; 128 Grazer is "a skilled angler" with "conspicuously large blond ears"; 634 Popeye's "well-furred" forearms earned his nickname; 402 has "apostrophe-shaped ears" and is the mother of 7 litters; 435 Holly has blond fur that "resembles the shape and color of a toasted marshmallow" and she raised 89 Backpack plus adopted Bear 503, who was "skinny and alone but curious and playful...Much of his story remains to be written." People also watch the bears on a LiveCam, and, in a sweet first in a bleak year, could vote for a Fat Bear Jr. cub. "When I'm watching the bears, I find myself going to a tranquil place. It's incredibly beautiful and peaceful," wrote one woman who laughs watching "my main man" Otis fall asleep in his "office" as he waits for salmon to jump. This week, Otis beat 151 Walker by 6,000 votes for an unprecedented 4th win - 2014's inaugural and 2016/2017. Though not the park's largest bear, he's one of the oldest and most popular - with a Facebook page - and won voters with his impressive weight gain and under-dog, or bear, backstory: He has arthritis, is missing two teeth, was very thin, and started late on feeding. There's no actual prize, but oh the glory! Aside from a few gripes about stolen elections, many lauded Otis as "the true king...May the fat be with you." "It's not just the weight - it's the 'tude," wrote a fan who considered a campaign for Lifetime Achievement if he lost. "As brown bears go, Otis is the Zen king of cool."

Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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