In the 1890s, Stag Island was a resort destination, with a single owner in the lumber business, ships coming up from Detroit and a large dance hall close to the water. With the coming of the automobile-which initially seduced people to 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 still exists today.
The association’s bylaws limit residence on the island to cottagers, although the land itself can’t be purchased, just the structures. Every owner has a share in the FFA, so in essence, ownership is communal. Cottages can occupy only a modest footprint. No motor vehicles are allowed on the island, only bicycles, lawn mowers and two golf carts for helping residents transport luggage from the ferry. And no one can build a fence, giving kids 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 the Hadfields’ kids did. (Today, son Evan, 30, works in marketing and advertising. He owns the cottage behind his parents’ with his wife, Katalin. Evan’s older brother, Kyle, 32, is pursuing an advanced degree in China, while their youngest sibling, 28-year-old Kristin, is now working in Chicago.)
A cruel irony of being a military man by occupation, not to mention an astronaut, is that for the past 35 years, Chris has been gone for most of the summers doing work and training sessions around the world. This didn’t stop Helene from packing up the family car nearly every spring and driving with the two dogs from Houston to Stag (“23.5 hours, not including stops”), and making the trip back again at the end of her summer stay, generally without her husband. Last year was the first year that Chris, newly retired from the Canada Space Agency, has ever spent the entire summer with Helene at the cottage. It’s hokey, but watching him stride through the woods, a preternaturally athletic 55-year-old, conjures that hokiest of all lines in Gone With the Wind, when Rhett Butler tells Scarlett O’Hara she gets her strength from the red earth of Tara. The couple has a house in Toronto now, but Stag Island is clearly Chris Hadfield’s Tara.