According to his biography on Explore.org, 747 was first identified in 2004 when he was a few years old. As time went on, observers learned that the scar-covered brown bear enjoyed spending time in the Brooks River “Jacuzzi,” a fishing hot spot for dominant bears to feast on sockeye salmon. Last September, rangers estimated he (and his belly that almost touches the ground) weighted 1,400 pounds.
“I think he’s bigger this year,” Boak says, noting that 747 was recently spotted trying to get up a hill, but his massive belly got stuck on a rock so he had to back down and find a new route. “He worked it this competition.”
Fat Bear Week was born in 2014 as a way to “celebrate all the hard work that these bears do to survive and thrive and get through six months of starvation,” Boak says. Creator Mike Fitz started the tradition with Fat Bear Tuesday, and as the competition grew in popularity, it also grew in length. This year, the week-long affair drew more than 550,000 online votes, more than doubling the number of voters during Fat Bear Week 2019.
Boak believes the competition’s combination of nature appreciation and humor is what drives Fat Bear Week’s increase in popularity.
“What a curative healing pleasure it is to, one, be able to laugh, and, two, be connected to nature by understanding the achievements of these individual bears,” Boak says. “I think such a cheerful release. And, quite frankly, how often does one get to celebrate fatness?”
While Boak isn’t sure if Fat Bear Week itself drives tourism to Katmai National Park, the bear cams do.
With more than 9 million unique views, the bear cams have inspired a passionate following, and Boak says they’ve compelled fans to make the difficult and pricey journey to Brooks River, where the fat bears spend much of their pre-hibernation feasting time.
“It’s expensive. And there are no cars. There are no roads, you have to walk, so not everyone can get here,” Boak says of the journey to Brooks River. “Most of the people who participate in Fat Bear Week and who watch the bear cams will never get here.”
That being said, the experience is popular, and accommodations sell out a year in advance. Those who want to stay at Brooks Lodge can only reserve a cabin through a lottery system, or can reserve one of the limited campsite spaces. If you can’t stay near the Brooks River overnight, Boak says travelers can come for a day trip, or visit other bear-watching destinations, such as the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge, where the largest known gathering of brown bears in the world takes place.
Boak hopes Fat Bear Week, and the park’s bear cams, will inspire more people to visit America’s largest state at some point in their lifetime.
“I’m a New Yorker, and I just think that people need to come to Alaska. It will change your life,” she says. “The scale of everything in Alaska is different ... it’s a very special place."