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 crossed a clearing to their neighbour’s, one of the few homes on the island that boasted a television set. Inside, he joined a throng of cottagers and watched American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step onto 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 Chris, 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, I’m going to do that. How can I not do that?”
To approach Stag Island by car today is to drive through possibly one of the last places in Canada that you would call “cottage country.” The area surrounding Highway 402 is dotted with oil-refining tanks and the odd see-sawing “nodding donkey”: all the legacy of North America’s first oil rush in 1858. The St. Clair River comes into view, with 300-metre-long steel lakers plying their way from Lake Erie to Lake Huron, or vice versa. Soon the air starts to smell of genuine Ontario rural water, and before you know it, you’re in the town of Corunna, home to one main street and four churches. On the far shore is Michigan. But between you and that shore is Stag Island, a 120-hectare slash of land that looks close enough to jump to.
Twenty minutes later, you’re on the island, sitting in the side porch of Chris and Helene Hadfield’s cottage, which 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 blond, equally youthful and a head shorter. They’ve been together for close to 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 to smile about these days-Chris being part of today’s Google doodle, for one. “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, but it was a surprise to me.”
The space designation is a no-brainer for Chris: first Canadian to walk in space, three missions in all, almost half a year spent in orbit. Music is obvious, too, largely because of his famous zero-g cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on board the International Space Station in 2013, when he was mission commander. But missing is the category “cottage.” It’s not difficult to find Canadians who are besotted with their family getaways, but it would be hard to find any that have consistently travelled further, over so much time, to stay connected to the place they truly consider home. “In my career, we’ve lived all over the world,” Chris says, “in Russia, Texas, California, Maryland, Alberta. We lived in Houston for 21 years, and it never felt like home. But this cottage, this island, more than anywhere, is the place you get to and exhale. On all three of my space flights, I nauseated my crewmates by taking pictures of this. Everybody on the crew knew where Stag Island was.”