Troy Hurtubise combined the fevered imagination of a mad scientist with the foolhardy bravery of Evel Knievel in his quest to design a suit impervious to bear attack.
Operating from a makeshift laboratory in a garage in North Bay, Ont., he produced ever stronger armour for what he called Project Grizzly. He was a backwoods Don Quixote convinced of his scientific acumen, a Captain Ahab whose white whale was ursus arctos horribilis. As with those fictional characters, he, too, was ultimately doomed by his compulsion.
The outdoorsman’s ambition was to become a bear behaviour specialist, a terrestrial Jacques Cousteau with the shark cage replaced by indestructible titanium armour.
The fanatical mission was chronicled over the years in amateur videos showing a besuited Mr. Hurtubise enduring all manner of violence. He was whacked on the arms with sticks; plonked by a plank to his helmeted head; pummelled by a trio of baseball bat-swinging bikers in the parking lot of a bar. A sledgehammer was swung against his chest. He was poleaxed by a 300-pound swinging log. He was pushed over the Niagara Escarpment, tumbling helmet over boot before crash-landing onto shrubbery at the base. His father deliberately drove a pickup truck into him at 50 kilometres an hour, an act repeated 18 times, each resulting in his being catapulted into the air. He survived that test, as he survived walking through flames.
The inventor, who has died at 54, named each of his homemade prototypes with Roman numerals, like a luxury car or a space vehicle. The Ursus Mark VI, the suit featured in the remarkable 1996 National Film Board documentary Project Grizzly, directed by Peter Lynch, looked like the love child of the Michelin man and a colander, transforming its inventor into an ursine Robocop.
His greatest fear? “Monotony,” he told the documentary filmmakers. “Being bored. Being average.”
The documentary earned praise from the director Quentin Tarantino and turned Mr. Hurtubise into a folk hero. He appeared on the television program Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, during which a BMW sedan suspended on a pendulum swung to punch him through a brick wall. The animated series The Simpsons paid homage in the 2003 episode The Fat and the Furriest when Homer dons a suit called the BearBuster 5000. Sometimes, the earnest, unapologetic and guileless inventor was the butt of a joke. He appeared on Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular during which scantily clad showgirls smacked him with aluminum baseball bats.
Troy James Hurtubise (pronounced HER-tah-bees) was born in Scarborough, Ont., on Nov. 23, 1963, the day after the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy. He was raised in Toronto and Hamilton, Ont.
In 1973, his father singlehandedly built a replica Iroquois village in elm and cedar called Ska-Nah-Doht, about 27 kilometres west of London. It is still in use as a museum today.
The younger Mr. Hurtubise was panning for gold in British Columbia’s Cariboo region at the age of 20 when charged by a grizzly. He recounted being knocked on his back by the bear before regaining his feet, armed only with knives to defend himself against a pending attack he was certain would mean his death. “We stood face to face for 30 seconds,” he said in 1988. “He could have killed me in an instant.” In the retelling, the bear, which he came to refer to as the Old Man, ambled away from the standoff.
For the teenaged Grade 9 dropout, the event set the course of his adult life. He enrolled in a conservation program at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Lindsay, Ont., where faculty members encouraged his plan to formulate a bear-deterrent spray. It would need to be tested in the field, which led to Mr. Hurtubise’s first attempt at a bear-proof suit of chainmail. He acknowledged at the time that it seemed like a suicide mission.
Beginning with little more than hockey gear, Mr. Hurtubise developed a suit so unwieldy it required two men to ease him into the contraption. Just being inside the suits was difficult for the inventor, who described himself as claustrophobic.
In the documentary’s climax, Mr. Hurtubise and his cohorts are shown seeking a grizzly in the Rocky Mountains. A trio of horses and, finally, a helicopter is needed to lift the heavy suit onto a desirable site, but then he is barely able to take two steps without falling, which leaves him supine on the ground like an overturned turtle.
His obsession lasted decades and ultimately pushed the inventor into destitution. He wrote a self-published book about Project Grizzly in 1990 and followed with an autobiography titled Bear Man (Raven House, 2011). He pursued other inventions, each more outlandish than the last: an exoskeleton of impenetrable material (which he called a “Superman suit”), a device capable of seeing through walls (“Angel Light”), a biodegradable fire suppressant (“Firepaste”), a ray gun to grow hair and crops (“R-light”) and a machine to harvest a chunk of dark matter (“Pandora’s Box”).
As he ran out of funds, he faced the prospect of working a minimum-wage job or receiving public assistance. His possessions were sold or pawned, including wedding rings. A bear suit wound up for sale at a local second-hand store for $1,500.
On June 17, a Sunday, at about 1:08 p.m., on Highway 17 between North Bay and Sturgeon Falls, Mr. Hurtubise’s car crashed into a double tanker-truck carrying fuel. His vehicle caught fire and his remains were later identified through dental charts. The driver of the truck suffered minor injuries.
He leaves Lori Hurtubise, his wife of 27 years, as well as a son, Brett, and a granddaughter. He also leaves his mother, Claudette Villeneuve, and his father, Maurice Hurtubise, as well as two brothers and three sisters.
In 1998, his efforts were rewarded with an Ig Nobel Prize, a parody honouring unusual or trivial scientific achievements. He was feted at a playful ceremony at Harvard University and invited to lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among those who sang his praises was Harvard chemist Dudley Herschbach, himself a Nobel laureate.
A charismatic figure who spoke in a rapid-fire patter, Mr. Hurtubise fit in with elite scientists at Harvard as easily as he did among friends at Country Style donuts in North Bay. He was a flesh-and-blood, 5-foot-8 dreamer inside an indestructible, 7-foot-2 suit, a Canadian original who never did get to test his lifetime’s work against a bruin’s brute force.