'Tis the season to be jolly, and I’m not talking about Christmas. It’s Fat Bear Week, a pure and wonderful treat for people who need a break from the brutal, harsh reality of 2020. Election overload? Coronavirus anxiety? Tune in to Fat Bear Week.

For the uninitiated, here’s everything you need to know about this auspicious week, and how to celebrate accordingly.

What on earth is Fat Bear Week?

Think of Fat Bear Week as a March Madness meets Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, but for bears in southwest Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve that are beefing up for winter hibernation.

“These bears get massive,” Sara Wolman, the program and media manager for the Katmai Conservancy, a nonprofit partner of the park, says of the competitors.

She is not exaggerating. Several large brown bears in Katmai can weigh in at over 1,000 pounds by the fall.

This year’s 12 contenders in the single-elimination bracket include Holly, 2019′s champion, and 747, a chunky hopeful generating buzz online.

When and where does Fat Bear Week take place?

As Katmai’s brown bears bulk up on the millions of sockeye salmon that run from Bristol Bay, fans can vote online for their favorite bear from Sept. 30 to Oct. 6 until one plump victor emerges.

At the Katmai Wilderness Lodge, bear viewing is a primary draw for visitors, says lodge manager and guide Perry Mollan. (Although not this year, as the lodge is closed because of the coronavirus.) Thanks to Fat Bear Week, many guests arrive at his lodge already familiar with the competing bears.

“They know their numbers. They know their names,” Mollan says. “The attention to those Brooks [River] bears is just incredible."

How do I get involved in Fat Bear Week?

Fat Bear Week is best celebrated online, whether you’re voting or just want to observe.

You can log on to Twitter and enjoy the discourse unfolding with the hashtag #FatBearWeek. You can watch the frolicking fat bears in their natural habitat by watching footage from one of the six webcams positioned around the Brooks River and surrounding area, then check out the #bearcam hashtag to discuss your own findings.

“The bear cams really put the park on the map,” Wolman says. “There’s definitely been an increase in popularity over the years because of that.”

There’s a whole schedule of events for fans, including Bearcamp play-by-plays and Q&A sessions with bear experts. According to the Katmai National Park website, “park rangers will be periodically available to answer your questions about the bears through blog postings, tweets, online ranger talks, and forum discussions.”

Should this year’s Fat Bear Week inspire you to visit Katmai someday, you can learn about bear viewing at Brooks Camp on the National Park Service website, and then study up on the bears you may see by reading this e-book on the chunky mammals.

Mollan says bear lovers should plan their trip well in advance. Reservations to the closest bear-viewing site, Brooks Lodge, fill up as soon as they are released. Travelers may have more luck finding a booking at Katmai Wilderness Lodge. “We’re never completely booked for the entire season,” Mollan says, “so there are openings throughout the year.”

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