Chris Hadfield’s favourite space? Down-to-earth at his cottage

On the night of July 20, 1969, a nine-year-old boy named Chris Hadfield walked out of his parents’ cottage on Stag Island, in the St. Clair River just south of Sarnia, Ont., and went across a clearing to the next-door neighbour’s cottage, one of the few on the island that boasted a television set. Inside, he joined a throng of cottagers crammed into the room with the TV, and watched American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step down onto the surface of the moon. Then he went back outside, looked up into a clear summer sky at the actual moon hanging there, and made a decision.“The neatest part wasn’t watching it on TV,” says Hadfield, 45 years and two weeks later. “It was hard to believe on TV. But walking outside and looking past the trees to the moon and connecting the two things, that was the turning point for me. And it wasn’t just that they’d walked on the moon—but that by the time the broadcast was over, they were sleeping on the moon. It seemed so normal already that guys were sleeping on the moon. And I thought, That’s the coolest thing I ever saw. I’m going to do that. How can I not do that?”

To approach Stag Island by car today is to drive through possibly the last place in Canada that you would call cottage country. Highway 402 comes down through a landscape that looks initially like industrial Houston, board-flat and dotted with whitewashed oil refining tanks and the odd “nodding donkey” oil well still see-sawing through its lazy pendulum: all the legacy of the discovery of oil in 1858 in nearby Petrolia and the digging of the first commercial oil well in North America. (Texas didn’t get into the business till half a century later.) When the St. Clair River finally does come into view, the context shifts from Houston to the Rhineland, the river a broad working waterway with thousand-foot-long, rectangular steel lakers plying their way from Lake Erie to Lake Huron, or vice versa. But soon the air starts to smell of water, genuine Ontario rural water; riverside homes, if not cottages, appear, then a parkette with someone weed-whacking grass. Before you know it, you’re in the town of Corunna, home to one main street and six churches. You turn onto Hill Street and park beside the Corunna Hardware store, which, it turns out, sells largely fishing equipment and guns, among the latter a “Browning Semi-Automatic Take-down Rifle, excellent condition, $525.00.” It’s a reminder that the far shore of the river in front of you is Michigan. But between you and that shore is Stag Island, a narrow 300-acre slash of land that looks close enough to jump to. And yes, it has cottages on it.

Twenty minutes later, you’re sitting on the island, in the side porch of Chris and Helene Hadfield’s cottage, which, in its way, is as straightforward and trim as its owners. Chris, in board shorts and a T-shirt, looks like an extremely fit version of William H. Macy; Helene (pronounced “Helena”) is blonde, equally youthful, and a head shorter. They’ve been together for 40 years, since they met in high school in Oakville, on the set of a play, The Man Who Came to Dinner. Helene, says Chris, still sounding impressed, was “the understudy for every female part in the play.” Chris, says Helene, sounding less so, was “like, the third butler.” But she smiles when she says it. They have a lot, these days, to smile about—Chris being part of today’s Google doodle, for one thing. “Today’s the birthday of John Venn,” he says, “you know, who invented Venn diagrams. Google put one together, and I’m one of the intersecting categories, space and music. They’ve apparently been working on it for a while with my son Evan, who does a lot of media for me now that I’m retired and doing talks and books, but it was a surprise to me.” He looks sheepish, but proud nonetheless. “You wake up and, hey, you’re the Google doodle.”

The Space designation is a no-brainer for Hadfield: first Canadian to walk in space, three space missions in all, almost half a year spent in orbit. Music is obvious too, largely because of his globally famous zero-g cover of David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” on board the International Space Station in 2013, when he was also mission commander. Music is also there in the hilarious original YouTube number he just finished taping with his brother Dave, called “In Canada,” which includes much apologizing. (Not to mention the astronaut cover band he’s part of, Max Q, whose name refers to that point during a launch when the dynamic force on the vehicle is at maximum, and things really start to “rock and roll.”) But missing is the category “cottage.” It’s not difficult to find Canadians who are besotted with their family cottages, but it would be hard to find any family that has consistently travelled farther, over such a long period of time, to stay connected to the place that they truly consider home.

“In my career we’ve lived all over the world,” he says, “in Russia, in Texas, in California, Maryland, Alberta. We lived in Houston for 21 years, and it never felt like home. I don’t know why; I always felt like we were visiting. But this cottage, this island, more than anywhere, is the place you get to and exhale. On all three of my space flights, I just nauseated my crewmates by trying to take pictures of this. Everybody on the crew knew where Stag Island was.”

Part of the exhaling allure of the place might be its throwback familiarity. The Hadfield cottage, like most of the places on the island—especially on this line of riverfront structures on the eastern, “suburban” side of Stag—is a cottage. It isn’t a transplanted city home or a four-season comfort zone; it’s simply a cottage. It smells like a cottage; it boasts a lot of panelling and rudimentary doorknobs; its single shower is a metal rectangle in the back room—what Chris calls the “blister shed,” because it looks like a blister on the back of the building—beside the washer and dryer. Helene, the self-identified “decor person,” oversaw the addition of the side porch, and the repainting of the interior from a utilitarian dun colour characteristic of the ’70s-modern style in which the cottage was decorated when they bought it. Further alterations are in the works— removing the aluminum siding, opening the ceiling up to the rafters, expanding the kitchen, and uniting the shower with the rest of the bathroom—but the ambience will be protected. Helene likes to tell the story of a visitor from Muskoka, who, on walking into their place, said, “This is so real.”

“It is real,” says Helene. “That’s why it surprises me when, say, some people here get so worked up when the deer eat their flowers.” She’s referring to the herd of 50 or so animals that make the island their home. “I mean, it’s called Stag Island. Hostas grow back. I like my garden too, but I like deer better.”

“To get a sense of what it feels like to live here,” says Chris, “just look at the committees we have on the island. Everything’s volunteer. We have a volunteer board and several volunteer committees. Helene’s on the bylaw and social committees, and I’m on the building committee, now that I’m retired from Houston. It’s heartening, and it’s how governments should work. The rules here have stood the test of time for a hundred years.”

The rules that are clearly such a touchstone for Chris Hadfield, and apparently an emotional one at that, aren’t the rules of a dictatorship, but the rules of a community. They’re the rules—appropriate for someone who’s an icon now on YouTube, and Twitter, and Tumblr—of a social network. In the 1890s, Stag Island was a resort destination, with a single owner in the lumber business, and with big ships coming up from Detroit, and a large dance hall close to the water. The “little” cottages on the Hadfield side of the island could be rented by people vacationing at the resort. With the coming of the automobile— which initially seduced people with more “glamorous” summer excursions—and the intervention of the First World War, the resort fell into disuse. In 1919, a group of investors bought the island and formed the Fraternal Fellowship Association (FFA), which persists today.

The association’s bylaws limit residence on the island to cottagers, although the land itself can’t be purchased, just the cottages. Every cottage owner has a share in the FFA so, in essence, ownership is communal. Cottages can stand no more than 26 feet high, or occupy a footprint larger than 50 feet by 35 feet. If your thing is ogling waterfront mansions, you have to look across to the mainland. No motor vehicles are allowed on the island, only bicycles, the odd ATV for hauling supplies, and one golf cart for helping residents transport luggage from the ferry. And no one can build a fence on the island. As a result, kids have a run-of-the-place abandon that harks back to a more innocent time; they disappear for the day, and show up to eat. As did the Hadfields’ kids. (Today, son Evan, 29, works in marketing and advertising. He owns the cottage behind his parents’ with his wife, Katalin. Evan’s older brother Kyle, 31, works in web sales in China, which restricts his Ontario cottaging, while the youngest sibling, 28-year-old daughter Kristin, who’s now working in Chicago, is the one slated to inherit Chris and Helene’s cottage.) “The all-ages demographic is what makes this such a magical place,” says Helene. “There are tons of octogenarians, and tons of kids, all interacting on a daily basis. Everyone knows everyone. Every kid who bikes by has 80 babysitters.”

One of those babysitters, a prime everyman who knows everyone, is Chris Hadfield. This becomes crystal clear when he takes me on a tour of two of the island’s other neighbourhoods, first the sand beach on the west side that faces Michigan, and then the wooded area in the interior, where the cottages are set in little sunlit parks, shaded by enormous oak trees. On the sandy side, he trades friendly jibes with a blonde woman with a southern U.S. accent, who speaks to him from the porch of a large silvered-wood, two-storey cottage. It’s festooned with tricolour bunting, like a baseball stadium at World Series time. Meanwhile, her daughter, giggling somewhere inside the house, calls out to Chris that if he’s going to be photographed, he should change his outfit. He tells them to come out and join him, but clearly they’re too shy. His neighbourliness is unquestionably authentic, but also something else—possibly political, definitely responsible. He uses people’s names, even if they’re seven years old. At one point, passing a little boy who— shades of Mayberry—is selling lemonade with his sister beside the path, Chris buys a cup and asks him what his name is. “Carson,” comes the answer. “Carson or Carsten?” “Carson.” “Uh-huh. And what cottage do you live in, Carson?” “W-3.” “Oh, W-3.” He examines Carson a bit more quizzically. “Hey, Carson, are you four years old?” “Yep.” “Yep,” says Hadfield. “I thought so.” It’s like a careful ritual of affection, especially with the kids. The world may have made him into a hero, it seems to say, but he was Chris first. And if he’s a hero now, he’s still their hero.

But nobody ever got rich being a hero. Even by combining his Air Force salary, as a captain, then a major, and eventually a colonel, with Helene’s computer programming work, the couple couldn’t afford to buy on the island till 2007. Before then, from the mid-’70s on, they spent their time there at his parents’ cottage. It’s located in a beautiful sunlit grove in the centre of the island, with a natural lawn and 400-year-old white and black oak trees, and a handful of similar two-storey cottages placed with artful disorder throughout. The old white-painted building with red shutters and a green door was one of the first structures on the island. Built in the 19th century, it was originally a boarding house. Chris’ parents (Eleanor and Roger, a retired Air Canada pilot) bought it in 1961, when he was two years old. It’s the cottage he grew up in, the one across the clearing from the neighbours’ cottage where he watched the moon landing in 1969, the one he returned to every summer, while he learned how to fly gliders at a nearby Air Cadet base, and motorized airplanes in London, Ont. (his two brothers fly planes as well). It is the cottage where he learned to water-ski, which he still does with his brothers and sons (“we have a slalom course set up on the river, and we get kind of crazy”), and scuba dive, which led to exploring hundred-year-old shipwrecks in Lake Huron.

“Dad!” he calls now in the direction of the screened porch. “There’s someone here who’d like to take some pictures of the house. Is that all right?” “That’s fine,” comes the answer from the porch. Hadfield’s solicitousness about not intruding on his parents is obvious; his baggage will not be theirs. His father opts to stay incognito, but his mother makes an appearance, coming around the corner of the cottage wiping her hands on a towel, fresh from—what else, in Canada on a sunny August morning—making butter tarts. “This,” says her son, “is my mom.”

A cruel irony of being a military man by occupation (not to mention an astronaut) is that for the past three decades and more, Chris has been gone for most of the summers, at conferences and training sessions around the world; he estimates that he was away from home for two-thirds of every year he was in the Air Force. This didn’t stop Helene from packing up the family car by herself every spring and driving with the two dogs from Houston to Stag (“231⁄2 hours, not including stops”), and then making the trip back at the end of the summer, generally without her husband, again. But it was worth it, if only to escape the Texas climate.

“Houston has just a horrible summer,” he says. “It typically gets up to about 37°C, and 100 per cent humidity. And it occurred to me, 37°C at 100 per cent humidity, that’s exactly the same as my armpit. That’s body temperature. And I thought, Why am I living in a place with a climate that’s exactly the same as my armpit?”For all that, all the underarm analogies, all the stranger-in-a-strange-land feelings, this is the first year, having just retired, that he’s ever spent the summer with Helene at the cottage. She has finally been able to quit working herself, and Chris is doing his work at the cottage, with her help, writing, scheduling speaking engagements, compiling his new book of photos from space, called You Are Here. This, it seems, is how heroes do capitalize on their adventurousness, by telling the less adventurous how it was.

It helps, of course, to have the perfect place to tell it from. It’s hokey, but watching him stride ahead of you through the woods in his shorts and T-shirt, a preternaturally athletic 54-year-old with sloping shoulders reminiscent of Gordie Howe’s, you find yourself thinking of that hokiest of all lines in Gone With the Wind, when Scarlett O’Hara’s father tells her she gets her strength from the red earth of Tara. The couple has a house in Toronto now as well, but Stag Island is clearly Tara for Chris Hadfield. You don’t have to ask him to list the reasons he loves the island; it’s a voluntary recitation. He loves the microclimate, created by the surrounding water, that keeps the temperature an average of four degrees cooler than on the mainland. He loves the surprising, even weird clearness of the water, which most people assume would be oily and possibly polluted (zebra mussels are the heroes of that story). He loves the general surprise most people express when he tells them where the cottage is (“no one thinks of this as cottage country”). He loves the fact that every huge laker carrying oil or grain that plies the Great Lakes has to come past Stag Island. He loves the seamless way private customs here can evolve to island-wide celebrations. The elderly American couple he and Helene bought their cottage from, for example, had refused to come to the usual island agreement with their next-door neighbour to share a dock. The result was two distinct decaying docks side by side, separated by an inch of airspace. One of the first things the Hadfields did on purchase was to arrange with their neighbours to join the separate docks to build a single, sturdy new one. “Now we have one big, wide, beautiful dock,” he says, “which we started commemorating every year with a joining-of-the-dock party, like the settlement of a long-time feud. At first it was just the neighbours; now it’s the whole island: the annual joining-of-the-dock party.”

But maybe the thing that captivates him most about the island is the accident of its geography, what it looks like in the long view. His first launch was out of Cape Canaveral, in Florida, aboard the shuttle Atlantis, destination the Russian space station Mir. This meant that the shuttle would head up the Atlantic coast, with the world turning underneath it.

“I did the math,” he says, “and I realized that 90 minutes after launch—92 minutes to be exact—we would come straight overtop of here. So I set the alarm on my watch and had my camera ready. And 92 minutes after I left earth, I looked out the window and saw Lake Huron coming down to a point where it joins the river. I saw the shadow of the Blue Water Bridge connecting Sarnia to Port Huron on the American side. I saw the little diagonal plank road that runs from the old Petrolia oil wells to the river docks, clear as a bell. And I looked a little south, to see this island.

“And there it was.”

Writer Jay Teitel witnessed the 1969 moon landing from a kibbutz in Israel. He is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Cottage Life.

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