Latest fashion for bear trackers

SUN JOURNAL

Protection: Despite financial and domestic repercussions, a Canadian is determined to perfect a suit that will let him study grizzlies, close up.

July 18, 1999|By Colin Nickerson | Colin Nickerson,BOSTON GLOBE

NORTH BAY, Ontario -- Troy Hurtubise quit school to become a modern-day mountain man. And in the mountains, he found his fate when a grizzly bear charged. Or ambled over. Versions vary.

Anyway, since then, the 34-year-old former scrap-metal dealer has chased a vision of the day when bear researchers, as he considers himself, can clump through the grizzly-haunted wilds of the West in perfect safety, protected from fang and claw -- indeed, protected from anything short of nuclear blast -- in his soon-to-be-patented Ursus Mark VII anti-grizzly bear suit.

That would be the Genesis model, or "G-Man," as he calls it. The one with thermal night vision, a bite-meter on the arm to measure the power of the grizzly's chomp and even a black box to record the researcher's final shrieked "field notes" in the unhappy event of a systems failure during an attack.

"If you're going to get down with grizzlies, you've got to have gear you can count on," says Hurtubise, a buckskin-clad inventor of the old school -- the school whose motto might be "perseverance, improvisation, duct tape." He used nearly 7,000 feet of the stuff on the last prototype suit.

For 13 years Hurtubise has endured ridicule, rejection, financial ruin and domestic disharmony as the result of his obsessive quest to build the world's first effective anti-grizzly armor.

He has also routinely risked his life testing the suit, although very little of the risk has come from actual bears. But more on that later.

"The objective of the suit is to achieve the protective capability to conduct close-quarter research on the world's most dangerous land mammal," he says. "But the G-Man also has applicability for bomb disposal, firefighting, U.N. peacekeeping, police work and professional sports."

For his efforts, Hurtubise has been mocked by Harvard, scorned by serious investors and -- perhaps the unkindest cut -- made the subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary movie portraying him as a Quixotic nut case.

So far, there have been six more or less functional prototypes of the bear suit, and Hurtubise is working on the most advanced design, the Ursus Mark VII Genesis, or G-Man.

The particulars of the latest model are shrouded in secrecy since he can't afford the costs of patenting the design. Having gone through more than $100,000 of his own money -- not to mention watching his scrap-metal yard go bust while his wife, Lori, very nearly took that last walk out the door with their 7-year-old son, Brett -- Hurtubise is desperate for financial backing.

He says he'll need about $800,000 "to get it off the ground."

The New Scientist, a British publication, describes the contrivance as made mostly of Boralyn E5 -- a lightweight metal composite produced by California's Alyn Corp. -- with a "honeycomb" shock-absorbing system packed between the endoskeleton and exoskeleton. Hardly any duct tape.

"This suit makes Robocop look like the Tin Man in `The Wizard of Oz,' " Hurtubise says. "With the G-Man, you can tap dance in a minefield. You can take a dynamite blast. You can take AK-47 rounds all day. You can walk through 4,000-degree Fahrenheit heat."

The G-Man's predecessor, the Mark VI, came to a sad end, seized by creditors -- although they were forgiving enough to let Hurtubise borrow it for a trip last fall to Harvard, where he accepted an "Ig-Nobel" award in the field of safety engineering.

The annual awards are tongue-in-cheek Nobel opposites, bestowed for "research that cannot or should not be replicated."

Hurtubise stole the show, happy to endure an evening of jibes, jabs and guffaws from university slickers for the chance to stand behind an honest-to-God Harvard lectern and speak passionately about the Genesis suit and its endless possibilities.

Possibilities such as live volcano exploration. Or riot control.

Even cynical souls were charmed by his earnestness.

"OK, an anti-grizzly suit may not be what the world is waiting for, but there really is something wonderful about Troy and his work," says Marc Abrahams, editor of Annals of Improbable Research, the journal that chooses the Ig-Nobel winners. "He's a classic inventor, just like Edison and a lot of others who've been labeled crackpots."

Hurtubise says: "Sure, the award was a set-up: Let's all hoot at the bear-suit guy. But, face it, getting invited to Harvard for any damn reason is a real breakthrough."

Perhaps especially so for a ninth-grade dropout who seemed destined for a drifter's aimless life until one hot day in August 1984.

Hurtubise, 19, was panning for gold on Humidity Creek, British Columbia. Then, pounding down through a mountain meadow, came an enormous specimen of Ursus arctos horribilis, the "horrible bear," or grizzly.

The bear knocked Hurtubise to the ground with a snout-shove to the chest. Then padded off.

It was vaguely anti-climactic not to be torn apart or gobbled. But a great fascination was born.

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