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Originally published December 6, 2009 at 12:12 AM | Page modified December 7, 2009 at 1:38 PM

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Destinations

Churchill, Canada: Science, art and curiosity mingle where the great white beasts gather

In the tiny town of Churchill in Canada's Manitoba Province, tourists, photographers, scientists and artists gather to see the polar bears that gather there each fall, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze. The bears roam the ice flats in search of seals to sustain them through the long winter months.

To learn more

Wildlife artist John Banovich: www.JohnBanovich.com

Churchill, Manitoba: www.churchill.caPolar Bears International (conservation group): www.polarbearsinternational.org

The polar bears pad across the tundra, endearing yet lethal creatures of Canada's far north.

The snowy-white carnivores gather each fall by the tiny port of Churchill, Manitoba, waiting for the slate-grey waters of Hudson Bay to freeze so they can roam the ice in search of tasty seals.

This remote town of 1,000, reached only by air or a two-day train ride from Winnipeg, has become the polar-bear capital of the world.

Bundling up against the Arctic cold, ecotourists riding in bus-like "tundra buggies" flock to Churchill to see the bears, which can weigh more than 1, 500 pounds. Sometimes the behemoths stretch up against the tundra buggies, braced on their almost foot-wide paws, to the delighted screeches of tourists firing their cameras at the windows.

Scientists and artists come to see the polar bears, too, including American wildlife painter and conservationist John Banovich.

Banovich, who studied art in Seattle and once was a competitive body builder and fitness trainer, published his lavishly illustrated 264-page book, "Beast," this fall.

Now based in Carnation, the 45-year-old Banovich has roamed the world for more than two decades to paint wild animals. The book reproduces more than 100 of his atmospheric oil paintings, accompanied by tales of his adventurous travels.

Africa has captured Banovich's heart — and paint brush. Uganda's gorillas, Kenya's lions, Botswana's elephants stare out of the book's glossy pages. But his wild subjects range from snow leopards of the Himalayas and Yellowstone National Park's elk to the Canadian polar bears.

"It is hard to believe this cuddly face masks the most fearsome carnivore of North America," writes Banovich of his 2005 Churchill bear painting, entitled "Someone to Watch Over Us." "And no polar bear is more dangerous than a mother with cubs. Able to drive away an adult male nearly twice her size while protecting her cubs, she views any creature on the ice as a potential meal for her family."

Male polar bears can stand a fearsome 10 feet tall. But even they don't mess with mother nature.

Kristin R. Jackson is a Seattle Times travel writer and editor. Contact her at kjackson@seattletimes.com

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