Grizzlies Are His Strong Suit
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Thu, 8 Oct 98 18:12:53 -0700
Subject: Grizzlies Are His Strong Suit
Forwarded-by: Marc Abrahams <email@example.com>
[Also see http://www.improbable.com -psl]
Grizzlies are his strong suit
Ron Corbett The Ottawa Citizen
Troy Hurtubise has a dream. Here it is:
In February 2000, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, he will parachute from
a camouflaged, night-blackened helicopter. He will be dressed in a suit of
armour made from a space-age metal. He will land within walking distance of
a grizzly bear den.
At the mere scent of a man, the hibernating mother bear will awake, leave
the den, and charge Mr. Hurtubise, who will then shoot the bear with a
Because a grizzly will not fall immediately upon being shot by a
tranquilizer gun -- studies have shown this, I am told -- Mr. Hurtubise will
then be attacked. He will be batted around by the grizzly bear -- swatted,
kicked, chewed, clawed, you name it -- but his bear suit will protect him.
When the grizzly finally falls, from the depths of the camouflaged
helicopter will emerge a crack team of face-blackened scientists, who will
quickly set to work extracting "plasma and other samples" from the sleeping
bear. Then -- "10 minutes, tops" -- the scientists will run back to the
waiting helicopter in order to be air-lifted out.
They will have to wait for Troy Hurtubise, however, who will be busy
dragging the sleeping grizzly bear back to her den. Before leaving the den,
he will stop to set up an "infra-heat red camera" that will be hooked to a
satellite "thousands of miles away." That spring, when the heat of the
pregnant bear's "birthing channel" sets off the camera, the world will get
its "first-ever footage of a grizzly giving birth in a real den. None of
this zoo garbage."
Mr. Hurtubise imagines doing all this and then toddling off to the
camouflaged helicopter, where the scientists will be smiling and waving at
him from an open door. In the gloved hand of one of the scientists will be
the test tube containing the grizzly bear plasma that will unlock the
secrets of bear hibernation for scientists at NASA.
The scientists will congratulate Mr. Hurtubise heartily when he finally
enters the helicopter. They will then fly off with their plasma and their
bear suit, to be awarded with a Nobel prize later that same year.
That's his dream. Maybe you've had something like it.
No? Well, Mr. Hurtubise would genuinely be surprised. The 34-year-old North
Bay man, a former scrap-metal dealer, has had this particular dream for a
long time -- designing a bear suit that will allow him to do "close-
quarters" scientific research on grizzlies, the most lethal land mammal on
In the course of fulfilling that dream Mr. Hurtubise has published a book,
gone bankrupt, starred in a National Film Board movie and become a cult hero
around the world.
Movie director Quentin Tarantino, for one, has called Project Grizzly, the
NFB movie about Mr. Hurtubise, his favourite documentary movie of all time.
David Letterman has been phoning Mr. Hurtubise for years to try and get him
on his show, an offer Mr. Hurtubise has declined each time. Jay Leno has
called as well. As has Howard Stern. As has ABC, CBS and NBC news.
Earlier this summer Harvard University even called and this time Mr.
Hurtubise took the call.
This Thursday, he will be giving the keynote speech at the eighth annual Ig
Nobel Awards ceremony at Harvard, a yearly send-up on the real Nobel awards
ceremony to be held next spring.
Indeed, so anticipated has been Mr. Hurtubise's arrival in Cambridge he has
even been asked to stay an extra day, so he can give more speeches at the
university, meet more scientists, and then attend a special screening of
Project Grizzly. Two screenings, actually, because the first sold out within
"I know some people down at Harvard will be ready to laugh at me," admits
Mr. Hurtubise. "But this is a great chance to meet some scientists. I've
waited 12 years for this."
And a very strange 12 years it has been.
According to the Hurtubise legend, which he will tell at the slightest
invitation, in August 1984, he was attacked by a grizzly bear while panning
for gold at Humidity Creek, British Columbia. He was 19 at the time. And it
changed him forever.
Two years later, after the Grade 9 dropout had returned to school at Sir
Sanford Fleming College in Lindsay, Ont., (he was enrolled in the four-year
conservation officer course at the time, although he would leave after three
years with a forest recreation technology degree) he was already dreaming
about building an impregnable bear suit.
His first suit, for the most part, consisted of little more than hockey
"That first suit was garbage," admits Mr. Hurtubise. "It couldn't even
withstand the blow of a baseball bat."
And how does Mr. Hurtubise know it couldn't withstand the blow of a baseball
bat? He field tested it, of course. As any good scientist would do.
In this particular case, the field-testing consisted of Sir Sanford Fleming
students taking turns beating Mr. Hurtubise with baseball bats.
A few years later, the Ursus Mark IV (the bear suits were soon given names)
was created. This suit added "mesh-bow weaving" to the forearms and shins.
The chain-link weaving was once again field-tested by bat-wielding Sir
Sanford Fleming students.
Mr. Hurtubise made a quantum leap the following year when he designed the
Ursus Mark V, which had 75 per cent of its inside body armour made of
mesh-bow weaving. By this time the suit was starting to look like a Robo
Cop clone and could withstand a blow equal to seven times Mike Tyson's
Baseball bats were no longer sufficient for proper scientific testing. To
field test the Ursus Mark V -- both the series A and the series B models,
in case you're making notes of this -- more elaborate tests were needed.
And quickly followed.
With video cameras rolling, Mr. Hurtubise's father tied a mattress to the
front of his pickup truck and rammed into his son while he was wearing his
bear suit. Mr. Hurtubise merely went bouncing away, like the Pillsbury Dough
Boy after a bad stumble, although moving quicker, that much was true.
His brothers took turns hitting him with pick axes. Large logs were hoisted
into trees, secured with ropes, and then swung down so they pummelled Mr.
Hurtubise in the head. He jumped off the Hamilton escarpment.
It was the going-over-Niagara-Falls-in-a-barrel aspect of his field testing
that first brought Mr. Hurtubise to the attention of the media.
W5 dropped by for a visit. Morningside called. David Letterman placed the
first of his many phone calls.
To get more media attention, and hopefully research funding, Mr. Hurtubise
even wrote a book called White Tape: an authentic behind the scenes look at
Project Grizzly, and published it himself. Sales, sadly, were minimal.
Still, he wasn't discouraged, even when it became obvious no one was taking
him seriously. (When someone as genteel as Peter Gzowski cannot control his
laughter during the interview, you know you're in trouble.)
"I knew people were laughing at me, but it didn't bother me," claims Mr.
Hurtubise today. "I knew the suit was getting better and better. I knew it
would work one day, that all I had to do was stick with it. Persistence,
that's what every inventor has to have."
Between the invention of the Ursus Mark V and the Ursus Mark VI, Mr.
Hurtubise moved to North Bay, met his wife, and started both a family (he
has a six-year-old son) and a scrap-metal business. He diligently continued
his bear research, however, spending many nights at the nearby Mattawa town
dump, dressed in his bear suit while garbage-addicted black bears bunted
him around like a beach ball.
Once again, it was all captured on video.
In the spring of '95, after he had just returned from a bear research trip
into the bush with fellow scientist Jean-Paul Cadieux, who worked at the
scrap-metal business when not doing research, Mr. Hurtubise received the
phone call that would change his life and eventually bring him to Harvard.
"It was from the National Film Board," remembers Mr. Hurtubise. "They said
they had read my book and loved it and wanted to make a movie about me. I
told them fine, bring the cream for the coffee."
Watch Project Grizzly, directed by Peter Lynch and produced by Michael
Adler, and you can immediately see why Quentin Tarantino fell in love with
the movie. It has all the quirky, absurd, fantastical elements that have
become the signature trademark of the Pulp Fiction director.
To achieve this effect, all the NFB film crew had to do was follow Troy
Hurtubise around North Bay and British Columbia as he talked about grizzly
In the movie, the bear suit is continually shown standing upright, as if it
were alive. The suit goes to Country Style Donuts in the back of a pickup
truck and waits outside. It stands like a sentry in front of Mr.
Hurtubise's home late at night. It travels down the Trans-Canada Highway
and people wave to it.
The cameras also capture (and this is what elevates the movie from absurd
slapstick to poignant work of art) Troy Hurtubise in all his manic,
Mr. Hurtubise is forever talking in the movie, forever telling stories,
forever getting misty-eyed when he talks about the "mountain men" he read
about when he was a child growing up in southern Ontario.
He is dressed throughout the movie in what can only be described as a
costume -- a fringed, buckskin coat, a red beret, a 12-inch hunting knife
fastened in a sheath to his shoulder, for fast removal Mr. Hurtubise
explains. He is some strange, Hollywood vision of a mountain man.
And yet in the end -- despite all his bluster and tall tales and the
pathetic failure of his bear suit during the actual field test -- there is
in Mr. Hurtubise's performance a certain school-boy earnestness that is
"It's the best documentary I've ever seen," says Marc Abrahams, the
organizer of the awards ceremony at Harvard. "Just about everyone I know
who has seen the movie feels the same way as I do.
"You start off laughing at Troy. When it shows him being hit with logs and
what have you, you just can't stop laughing. I mean, it's hilarious.
"But by the end of the movie you have a whole range of emotions at work.
He doesn't necessarily make you a believer -- the bear suit is still an odd
idea -- but just about everyone starts rooting for Troy. He becomes this
Although Project Grizzly caught the attention of people around the world
(in typical Hurtubise fashion the stats are rhymed off: the movie has been
shown on every continent except Antarctica; he has given interviews about
the movie to reporters on every continent except Antarctica; it sold out
its theatrical release in Los Angeles every day it was shown; Mr. Hurtubise
claims not to like the movie.
"I told the NFB people we shouldn't go looking for grizzlies in October, so
what we do? We go looking for grizzlies in October," he complains.
"Because I was working on the movie for five months I also didn't get a
chance to look after my scrap-metal business. I went bankrupt because of
that movie and the NFB guys never even talked about my research. They just
used all the funny stuff."
And funny stuff there certainly was. In a scene that is already legendary
in Canadian cinema, the great field test of Ursus Mark VI came to a grinding
halt when, on the second day out, with his "research team" assembled around
him with camouflage fatigues and shotguns, his Uncle John holding a walkie
talkie and talking to "perimeter points" for any sightings of grizzly bears,
every camera rolling, Mr. Hurtubise dons his bear suit and tries to walk.
On his second step he keels over and lands on his face. He then wiggles on
the ground like a turned-over turtle. The research team rushes to his aid.
Turns out the Ursus Mark VI cannot be used on "uneven terrain." The cameras
catch a crestfallen Mr. Hurtubise, after he is back on his feet, saying
there is a slight "flexibility problem" with the suit.
It is not worn again during the movie.
Aside from those ten humiliating seconds lying on the ground wiggling before
an NFB film crew, Troy Hurtubise has never been down in his life.
Although he went bankrupt shortly after the filming of Project Grizzly, he
has since found a new investor for his bear suit. The G-Man, which Mr.
Hurtubise says will make the Ursus Mark VI look like a "tin cup," is built
with airbags and a new space-age metal called boralyn. Mr. Hurtubise says
the weight of the suit is down to 120 pounds, the same weight a fully
dressed fireman wears. The heat and p.s.i. ratings for the G-Man, according
to the inventor, are "nothing less than revolutionary."
The new bear suit will be unveiled to the world at Harvard. The NASA
scientists will then have a look at it. The possible uses for the suit make
Mr. Hurtubise dizzy. A space suit. A fireman's suit. A bomb disposal suit.
Maybe you could research active volcanoes with a suit like this.
Despite his excitement, Mr. Hurtubise admits to some apprehension about the
"I know I'm supposed to be funny when I'm down there, that a lot of people
are coming just to laugh at me," he says. "I can put up with that as long
as they take me seriously when I speak.
"I've really created something wonderful here," he continues. "I'm going to
change the way people do bear research. Years from now, people are going to
be thanking Troy Hurtubise for what he's done. I know that in my heart."
Mr. Abrahams says Mr. Hurtubise shouldn't be apprehensive. Yes, there will
be some giggling. Yes, some people will laugh out loud during the showing
of Project Grizzly. Most people do the first time they see the movie.
But he says the intent of the Ig Nobel awards ceremony is not to "ridicule"
"These ceremonies are in the grand British tradition of honouring
eccentrics," says Mr. Abrahams. "We love the quirky inventions. The quirky
"Some very prestigious scientists, eminent scientists, have seen Project
Grizzly and they love Troy. They'll be speaking about him at the ceremony,
about his persistence and his love of science. I expect Troy will have a
great time while he's with us."
Mr. Hurtubise is counting on it. He is taking his wife, Lori Ann, to Harvard
with him. She has booked (Quentin, listen to this. It wasn't even in the
movie) five days off from her job at the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in
North Bay, just so she can go to Harvard.
She is a beautiful woman, by the way, Lori Ann Hurtubise, and when asked if
she has ever had misgivings about her husband's apparent calling in life,
she laughs and says although she worries about him getting dressed up in
bear suits and being rammed by pickup trucks, she has never asked him to
"It's who he is," she explains. "He was like that when I met him. I could
never ask him to stop."
A strange, bear-suit love story. After a day in North Bay talking to Mr.
Hurtubise, I can't even act surprised. Of course that was going to happen.
Anyway, vindication; coffee with the scientists from NASA; maybe some
meetings with the Japanese businessmen who have been phoning to tell him
they will be at the awards ceremony -- all this could be waiting for Troy
Hurtubise in Boston.
In the meantime, while he waits, the former high-school dropout and
scrap-metal entrepreneur is working on his keynote address. In a restaurant
in North Bay, Ursus Mark VI sitting in a black, Dodge pickup truck parked
outside -- just as in the movie -- Mr. Hurtubise shows me the paperback book
on famous inventions that he has been using as a reference source.
Specifically, he points at an old, black-and-white photo of a First World
War infantryman wearing chest armour.
"The British tested something like the bear suit during that war," says Mr.
Hurtubise. "They dressed up some of their guys in armour, although it only
went to the waist, and then they sent them between the trenches to see how
good the protection was.
"Only problem, of course, is that the Germans shot out everyone's knee caps.
Armour that only covers half the body, what were they thinking? After a week
of field testing, and when nobody would try on the suit any more, the Brits
decided it wasn't a good idea."
Mr. Hurtubise stares at the photo. Shakes his head.
"God, and they said I was stupid."
© 1998 Peter Langston