Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week contest, where the public votes on Southwestern Alaska’s fattest bears, is an international sensation. A smaller bear-viewing site in Southeast Alaska has kicked off its own bear awards this year, but the focus isn’t just on the rotundity of the area’s resident bruins.
Each year in early July, salmon return from the ocean, through the waterways of Southeast Alaska, and up Anan Creek. Bears follow close behind. And close behind the bears are visitors, hoping to catch a glimpse of fishing bears and other wildlife at Anan Wildlife Observatory.
The remote site, located on the mainland about 30 miles southeast of Wrangell, is staffed by seasonal workers with the U.S. Forest Service who rotate shifts living at a nearby floathouse anchored in Anan Bay.
That’s where the idea for the Anan Bear Awards was born, said Recreation Planner Dee Galla, with the U.S. Forest Service in Wrangell. This year, the Forest Service had six employees working at Anan.
“One of their duties is to try and identify the bears, because that helps us get an idea of the trends of the population, how many bears that we’re seeing at a time, are they the same bears, that kind of thing,” Galla explains.
As a part of that identifying, Anan employees take photos and videos of the bears walking, resting and eating.
“We have anywhere from 40 to 60 black bears that we see every year, that’s hard to determine because, you know, sometimes people are counting on the same one. Sometimes, we’re guessing if it’s the same bear or not,” Galla said. “And then we probably have about half a dozen to a dozen brown bears in a given year that people see.”
All that watching leads to a familiarity between Anan staffers and the bears at the creek.
“You watch them for a while and you start to be able to pick out different characteristics that each of them have, I mean, that’s generally how they acquire their names,” Galla said. “This year, how it started is that we just had a whiteboard in our breezeway at the float house, and I think one of the gals just started writing out categories for bear awards, and everybody would throw – you know – write down what they thought and why. And it got to be something kind of funny: every week, you’d go out there and see who was winning the new awards.”
At the end of the season, Galla said staffers made the informal whiteboard awards into a full presentation, which they sent to Paul Robbins, the public affairs officer for the Tongass National Forest.
“They sent me a bunch of videos and pictures of the bears that they took throughout the season, and their unique attributes, and entertaining anecdotes, and their names on this in this email, and said, ‘This would be an interesting way to recognize all these unique animals that we have this imagery of,’” Robbins explains, “And I thought, ‘Absolutely!’”
Robbins said that was about two weeks ago. The Tongass National Forest social media kicked off the first annual Anan Bear Awards with an award for “Fattest Bear” on Oct. 3. That went to “Unnamed Thick One.” (Not all the bears have names.)
“We’ve had ‘Cutest Bear,’ We’ve had the ‘Best fisherman,’ or fisher-bear, I should say, Scuba Sue was the ‘Best Fisher-bear,’” Robbins said. “And then we had the ‘Most Chill Bear,’ who was doing an impersonation of Baloo from ‘The Jungle Book’ just leaned up against a tree, scratching along to the music. Entertaining stuff.”
Scuba Sue is a well-known bear at Anan Creek – one of the only bears that regularly dips her full head and ears under the water to fish for salmon.
Robbins said the Forest Service is bestowing a grand total of nine awards to Anan bears this year, with the potential for expansion in years to come.
He said as a social media campaign for the Tongass National Forest, the Anan Bear Awards are a hit so far.
“We’re getting more engagements, more likes, more loves, more laughs than we usually do on our posts, which are primarily informative and not have adorable bear antics,” Robbins said. “And definitely more shares than we usually get.”
Robbins said it also helps to elevate Anan, which is a relatively remote and under-the-radar bear-viewing site.
“Not many people actually get to go to Anan and see that amazing place,” Robbins said. “So there’s a great way to share with folks who can’t make it.”
Although the timing of the first annual Anan Bear Awards coincides with Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week, it’s not meant to compete with that well-established ursine election cycle. For one, the Anan Bear Awards aren’t public choice. Plus, Anan is a different site, with a different vibe.
“I don’t think we have the amount of fat bears to really have a fair competition,” Robbins muses, “And we’re running this at the same time, so we’re not really looking to compete with Katmai. We just know that people are really interested in Fat Bear Week and they love it. People love bears in general. And this just looked like a great opportunity to highlight our bears here on the Tongass at Anan.”
“And,” he continues, “we prefer to highlight their unique personalities and traits over their girth. Katmai has that well done, so we’ll leave that to them and focus on the antics of Anan bears.”
Whether Unnamed Thick One and Scuba Sue can hold onto their titles next year remains to be seen.
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