National Parks Journal: Katmai Ranger Cheryl Spencer on the ‘Must-See’ Elements of Fat Bear Week

by Jon D. B.

After a record-breaking summer and a slew of new bear contenders, Katmai National Park & Preserve Ranger Cheryl Spencer says this year’s Fat Bear Week is an “absolute must-see.”

Ah, to be a fat bear in Katmai. “We’ve got some true winners,” Ranger Cheryl begins for our National Parks Journal. “And there are a lot of bears on the bracket this year that haven’t been on the bracket in the past. It was really hard to narrow down.”

Cheryl Spencer made it her life’s work to secure a post at Katmai National Park & Preserve, and it’s all because of – you guessed it – Fat Bear Week.

Ranger Cheryl Spencer at Brooks Camp where she is stationed, 2021. (Photo courtesy of C. Spencer, Katmai National Park & Preserve)

A fellow lifelong bear-lover, Cheryl began focusing all her energy on joining Katmai’s renowned team several years back. And her previous work at Yosemite National Park would prepare her for ranger duties, sure. But nothing could prepare her for working with the now infamous fat bears of Katmai.

Katmai’s gloriously gluttonous brown bears, specifically, are what opened her eyes to this remote Alaskan national park, which might never have been on her radar otherwise. Now in her second season with Katmai and Fat Bear Week, she’s happier than a boar (male bear) in excrement (well, you get it).

It’s a particularly exciting year to be in on Fat Bear Week, as well. The intense concentration of brown bears at Brooks Falls this summer (seen via the location’s fantastic Bearcam) has been remarkable to witness. Ranger Cheryl cites this as a side-effect of “a much later salmon run” bringing all the hungry bears out to the falls in search of fish.

“The escapement numbers were higher than they’ve ever been. We’re not exactly sure why, but for whatever reason [2021’s] salmon run did not come up the Brooks River the same time as it usually does,” Cheryl explains.

Katmai National Park’s Cheryl Spencer: ‘I Counted More than Fifty Bears in Just the Falls Area Alone’

“Escapement” is the total number of adult fish returning to a hatchery or stream to spawn. And once these returning fish did hit Brooks Falls, the record number of bears stuck around for a venerable feasting frenzy – setting the stage for a truly incredible Fat Bear Week.

“I don’t want to call it ‘unusual,’ because whatever nature does is, you know, natural,” Cheryl laughs of 2021’s peculiar summer in Katmai. “But it has been unbelievable, truly. There were days at Brooks Falls where I was up there personally, and on at least three separate occasions I counted more than fifty bears just in the Falls area alone.”

The brown bears of Katmai National Park & Preserve’s Brooks Falls, 2021. (Photo courtesy of C. Spencer, Katmai National Park & Preserve)

As Cheryl lauds: “That is an insane number of bears. I never thought I’d see anything like that.”

This phenomenon has brought new contenders out into public viewing, too, and Ranger Cheryl says we fat bear fans are in for a real treat.

“Let me tell you, we’ve got some super fat bears this year,” Cheryl offers ahead of the Sept. 29 bracket reveal. She says so with all the excitement of a divorced kid experiencing multiple Christmases for the first time.

Yet as any fan of Fat Bear Week will tell you, there’s few fatter bears than 2020’s reigning ‘King of Chonk’ himself, Bear 747, Earl of Avoirdupois. And like the rest of us, Ranger Cheryl knows he’s a real tough act to follow.

Fat Bear Week’s Reigning Champion, Bear 747, Will Be ‘So Tough to Beat’

“Obviously seven-four-seven is a huge bear,” Cheryl emphasizes. “It’ll be so tough to beat this dude. I mean, he showed up to Brooks Camp in July like 800-pounds already. And he is super fat right now, too! So I will say that he will be really hard to beat. Because he is, again, super fat.”

747, Earl of Avoirdupois, 2020 Fat Bear Week Champion NPS Photo/ N. Boak (Courtesy of Katmai National Park & Reserve for Fat bear Week)

Bear 747, seen above, is tremendously large. First identified in 2009, the appropriately numbered brown bear has gone on to become a Katmai superstar. This time of year in 2019, he was estimated to weigh more than an astounding 1,400 pounds (636 kg). Cheryl says 747 is, without a doubt, putting on just as much weight for 2021.

These are the sort of gluttonous giants Fat Bear Week fans have come to love. Ranger Cheryl says Katmai National Park & Preserve has a “lot of super-strong contenders” for the 2021 bracket. And several new faces are poised to give 747 a proper battle for his chubby crown.

Fat Bear Week begins Wednesday, September 29 and lasts until Fat Bear Tuesday on October 5, and we’ll have far more from Ranger Cheryl Spencer in our National Parks Journal series to come. In the meantime, Outsider has you covered on all the information you’ll need, including how to vote, for Fat Bear Week 2021.

May the fattest bear win.