Inside Chris Hadfield’s Cottage

For space traveller Chris Hadfield, a little slice of Ontario cottage country is the ultimate destination.

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Inside Chris Hadfield's Cottage
Photo: Daniel Ehrenworth

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.”

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Part of the allure of the place might be its throwback familiarity. The Hadfield abode, like most on the island, is a cottage. It isn’t a transplanted city home or a four-season comfort zone. It smells like a cottage; it has a lot of panelling; its shower is a metal rectangle in the backroom. “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. Helene’s on the bylaw and social committees, and I’m on the building committee, now that I’m retired from Houston. The rules here have stood the test of time for 100 years.”

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.

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You don’t have to ask him to list the reasons he loves the island; it’s a voluntary recitation. He likes the microclimate, created by the surrounding water, that keeps the temperature four degrees cooler than on the mainland during summer. He loves the 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 seamless way private customs can evolve into island-wide celebrations. For example, the elderly American couple from whom he and Helene bought their cottage had refused to come to the usual island agreement with their next-door neighbour to share a dock. The result was two decaying jetties, separated by three centimetres of space. One of the first things the Hadfields did upon their purchase was to arrange with their neighbours to build a new joint structure. “Now we have one big, wide, beautiful dock,” he says, “which we started commemorating every year with a 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 Chris most about the island is the accident of its geography, what it looks like in the long view. His first launch was out of Kennedy Space Centre, 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.”

© 2014 by Jay Teitel. Cottage Life (Winter 2014).

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