July 5

Troy Hurtubise died recently in what has been described as a "fiery car crash" in northern Ontario. Hurtubise invented what he claimed was a bear-proof suit, and dubbed it the Ursus Mark IV. (There were also iterations V, VI, VII and VIII, but no I, II or III.) He briefly became a kind of Canadian icon when a 1996 National Film Board documentary called Project Grizzly made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival. Dressed in fringed buckskin, and speed-talking big plans of future weird inventions, Hurtubise could briefly forget about his North Bay scrap metal business, while hanging out with the likes of Val Kilmer. Quentin Tarantino admired the eccentric film. Even The Simpsons riffed on his bear suit.

Almost 20 years earlier, when I'd just started as a young staff magazine writer, I did the first print story on Hurtubise. At the time, he was a student at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Lindsay, Ontario, trying to pitch his newly invented bear suit -- really just a collection of hockey pads, ski boots and a motorcycle helmet -- as a breakthrough way of doing "close-quarter bear research". Though clearly not serious, and only fractionally informed, he could spout figures and quasi-facts with Blarney-Stone-kissed fluency: His suit took 347 hours to build, and required 937 screws and 2.4 kilometres of duct tape. He could keep going indefinitely in this vein. He was trying to raise money to overcome the suit’s main disadvantage -- how hot it became during an Ontario summer for the researcher (himself). He cited appropriately astronomical temperatures, but claimed that this could be avoided through the use of "NASA spaghetti wiring," which he couldn't afford.

His blue-collar, small-town Canadian manner contrasted with his mad inventor persona. His enthusiasm swept up several fellow students, who became his Merry Men for a couple of years, filming his exploits, hosing him down in the hot suit, and even backing him up with firearms as he attempted to test it on black bears. Eventually they graduated and faded away. But although Hurtubise later married, had a kid, and made a living, sort of, as a scrap metal dealer for a time, he never really put his Ursus Mark IV fantasies behind him. When the film director found him, he hadn't worked on the suit in ages, but with NFB funding, he gamely concocted the Ursus Mark VI -- a gigantic model so heavy and bulky that he couldn't walk in it -- and went off with a camera crew to the wilds of Alberta to try to convince a grizzly to punch him.

When I knew Troy, he was in his heyday, buoyed by his student entourage. Teachers encouraged him to turn the idea into a school assignment and helped him set up a registered charity called Project Grizzly. My initial short piece on him was picked up by the David Letterman Show, which contacted him about coming down to New York to have Dave test the suit by beating Troy with a baseball bat. It never came off -- I believe Letterman's attorneys discouraged the stunt -- but the Troy saga continued to develop, and I eventually did a full feature on him.

At the time of the first piece, Troy had simply wanted attention, and didn't mind being a joke. By now, however, he fancied himself a National Geographic scientist-in-waiting. Though he cooperated with my story, he suspected that I did not take him seriously. He was not entirely wrong. I had to jab an open paper clip into my hand while interviewing him on the phone, so that I would not dissolve into giggles. But the lengths he went to test his suit, and his facility with off-the-wall description, made him one of a kind. He had a 220-pound biker named Big Pete smash him in the face with a two-by-four. He enlisted his father to drive into him with a pickup truck at 50 kilometres an hour, sending Troy skidding across the grass like a bowling ball. He and his henchmen rigged a heavy log up in a tree, suspended by ropes in such a way that when released, it swung down into him like a battering ram. Of course, he cited precise figures for the pounds-per-square-inch of the impact and claimed that it equaled the blow of a grizzly bear's paw. We went to an attack dog training facility, and Rottweilers and Dobermans bit him in the suit. The Rottweiler's jaws, he explained, had virtually the same power as a bear's.

For the pièce de résistance, we drove to the Niagara Escarpment, a cliff near Toronto. This section was actually a near-cliff about 200 feet high. I rappelled part-way down with my camera while one of his Merry Men drop-kicked (not pushed, but drop-kicked) him off the top. While my motor drive whirred, he hurtled past in 30-foot parabolas, landing in a cloud of dust at the foot of the escarpment, astonishingly unhurt. He practiced martial arts, and that morning, his knowledge of how to fall surely saved him from serious injury, hockey pads and motorcycle helmet or not.

Later, he sent me a film that he and his cronies had made that summer, while trying to test the suit against black bears at a First Nations reserve in northern Ontario. Somehow he had managed to enlist a professional narrator, and the man's smooth baritone counterpointed the wacky goings-on in the amateur production. Pimply college kids grinned with embarrassment as the camera briefly rested on them before turning its attention back to Troy, chest puffed out, Crocodile Dundee-sized Bowie knife on his hip, holding forth about the scientific possibilities of close-quarter bear research. Now and then, for contrast, he did a somersault on the ground and came up throwing his knife, with deadly accuracy, into a tree. The message to bears everywhere: This was not a man to be trifled with. Through most of the film, Dwayne Eddy's song, Rebel Rouser, played in the background, without rights clearance.

The most dangerous incident of the summer came not from the poor black bears he harassed at the local dump -- they all fled in terror as the rotten-egg camouflaged Troy reared up from under piles of garbage and tried to grab them. But somehow, the gang had managed to crash their camper head-on into the only other vehicle on that lonely road. All were shaken but unhurt.

Details are sketchy about the recent accident that killed the now 54-year-old Troy: Collision with a tanker, driver of the other vehicle okay, Troy's car aflame and everything so badly burned that it took the coroner several days to identify the body.

Over the years, in whatever-became-of newspaper pieces, Troy had fumed about his fate. He'd been given a taste of fame, but then that taste had been cruelly withdrawn. He'd suffered several bankruptcies and had to hock his famous bear suit to pay the bills. His ideas had never received any support. In one breath, he wondered whether the bear man would end his days working shifts at Tim Horton’s. In the next, he claimed that he was close to perfecting a device to capture dark matter and had started a GoFundMe page to raise the half-million dollars needed to cap the deal. He bragged that he could go without sleep for 50 hours while staying "completely coherent". Although I had never seen Troy completely coherent, with or without sleep, I secretly admired his never-say-die nuttiness, which became more impressive as its cost to his life increased. His college pals had long moved back to earth, but Peter Pan continued to flutter, on failing wings, in Neverneverland. One can only hope that he has a chance to spend eternity working on a suit that will protect angels from devils. That would be heaven for him.

February 9, 2018

Kurt Vonnegut's Rules for Effective Writing. #5 is especially good.

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the action. 
5. Start as close to the end as possible. 
6. Be a sadist. 
7. Write to please just one person. 
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. 


I've been hard at work recently on a new adventure book and so haven't updated this website as much as usual. In the meantime, for both repeat and new readers, remember that there's lots of material in the archives of all four regularly updated pages: Writing, Expeditions, Gear and Ellesmere/Labrador.


Categories of modern polar book:

1. Expedition book. A post-trip pr vehicle. With exceptions, little attempt at quality. Tends to be full of misspellings and incorrect history. Sponsors names dropped with a thud at every opportunity. Attempts to give the journey a prominent place in the adventure pantheon of the region. Usually a forgettable product, even in the case of genuinely impressive expeditions.

2. Labor of love. A talented person who is neither a professional writer nor an adventurer does a journey of love and writes a surprisingly moving book about it. It may be their first and only book, and/or their first and only expedition. Supports the truism that everyone has one good book in them.

3. Geezer's memoir. A vain old scientist or police officer recalls the six months or one year they were stationed in the Arctic 40 years ago. They are under the impression that they are making a modest historical contribution; most are not. Generally readable by speed-skimming in 10 minutes.

4. Guidebook. Can be exceptional or pretty useless, depending on who does it. The best guidebooks include little stories gathered about the region rather than mere inventories of plants, animals, rocks, etc. Trouble is that most guidebooks tend not to pay the writers very well, so there's little incentive to do more than a serviceable job. There are exceptions: a hoary classic like The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

5. Journalist's job. A journalist heads up north, hangs around the villages, chats up the scientists, and writes about a contemporary issue like climate change or arctic sovereignty. Tends to be dull and predictable: Polar bears in trouble, Inuit are victims. If you read to pick up a few facts, without expecting any original insights, you won't be disappointed.

6. Rare gems. A scientist who knows how to write, or a writer who knows how to research, gets a bug about the North and produces a one-off work of total originality. Differs from #2 on this list in that the author is a professional, and the book is not necessarily about a single journey; otherwise, similar.

7. Historical rehashes. Very popular, ever since the revival of interest in Shackleton as a model of corporate leadership. A mildly new take on some old explorer, with lots of background filler. The more dramatic the saga, the less impressive these new versions tend to be, because those classic tales have already been well-mined, and pending the discovery of new information, most of what can be said, has been said.





All words and images ©2008-18 Jerry Kobalenko. Unauthorized use strictly prohibited by law.