ASTRONAUT MEETS ARCTIC
Insights on Canada’s Far North from the country’s most famous spaceman, Chris Hadfield
Insights on Canada’s Far North from the country’s most-famous spaceman, Chris Hadfield
CHRIS HADFIELD BELIEVES in the
power of ideas. Since retiring from the Canadian Space Agency, the Canadian astronaut — who rocketed to global fame in 2013 thanks to his multimedia dispatches from orbit as commander of the International Space Station — has dedicated his seemingly boundless energy to the promotion of ideas that challenge and excite. Two years ago, at the urging of his son Evan, Hadfield organized the first instalment of what has come to be known as Generator, a sort of 21st-century salon bringing together artists, musicians, inventors and thinkers for a celebration of creativity. The first show sold out Toronto’s Massey Hall and set in motion discussions that would ultimately see Hadfield bring the Generator concept to the Arctic. For 18 days in August and September 2016, the astronaut and a team of 10 multimedia storytellers from around the world, including Canadian photographer Paul Colangelo, traversed the Arctic Ocean, from southern Greenland to Resolute, Nunavut, aboard a cruise ship. Their goal? To create art that portrays the Arctic not as a symbol of climate catastrophe or a prize to be claimed, but simply as it is: a region of surprising beauty with a unique culture, worthy of exploration and understanding. Here, Colangelo shares his photography from the trip for the first time in print, while Hadfield discusses his experience with Generator Arctic and why Canadians should strive to know their North.
On the impact of Generator Arctic
It’s gone better than I ever hoped it would. We put on a show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Danny Michel released an album that he wrote and recorded on board. Elmo Keep is still writing about it. Simone Bramante in Italy is doing a travelling show based on it. And all sorts of people saw the Arctic through this work and realized that to visit it is an option.
On what surprised Hadfield about the Arctic
The lushness of it, and the richness and success of the life there. It was amazing, at 80 degrees north, to be walking across a meadow that was absolutely teeming
with life. It was like walking across a barnyard — there was so much animal manure in this big, mossy field, with muskox and rabbits and wolves and smaller dogs. At sea, we saw all sorts of wildlife as well, polar bears, whales, seals and narwhals and almost all the different breeds of birds that live up there. I was amazed at the prevalence of life everywhere and the ancient nature and balance of it. It’s not as broad or deep as life in the south, but it’s extremely evolved and much more intense. The Arctic doesn’t feel barren at all. It feels incredibly rich and beloved, and that wasn’t something I was expecting.
On the shared experience of exploring
You get a chance to get to know people and look into their lives. One of the ladies on the cruise was lovely, in her 70s; her husband had recently died, and she was kind of gathering herself and wondering what to do with the rest of her life. She swam in each place we stopped, in the super-cold water, and treated it almost like a pilgrimage. As part of the evening lectures, each member of my Generator crew would get up and talk about their own experiences, what they’d seen so far and also where else they had been. To have all those different mirror reflections of the whole thing I think deepened it for everybody.
On connecting with the past
We visited Beechey Island and stood at the graves of the three men who died early in the Franklin expedition. There are not many places on Earth that give you the sense of eternity, of patience, of implacable geology and of beautiful time that you feel there. We get so frantically worried about the hurried nature of each of our individual existences that it’s lovely to be in a place that reminds you of eternity. The Arctic helped put that back into my soul. I long to go back.
On why Canadians should care about the North
Many Canadians are the lucky beneficiaries of an extremely successful civilization: we are raised with an expectation of stability, we have one of the top education systems in the world, we have a great social welfare system. With that level of privilege also comes responsibility, and I think our number-one
responsibility is not to just understand the neighbourhood that each of us lives in, but to actually get to know the country and see how it all fits together. We’re the second biggest country on Earth, and it’s because of the enormous amount of Canada that is the Arctic. As the climate continues to change and sea ice becomes less prevalent, those waters are going to become more and more important. There is enormous untapped potential in the North — mineral and petrochemical wealth, tourism wealth and navigational wealth. We need to know it exists and see it in as multifaceted and complete a way as we can. Then we can start thinking about how it’s going to become part of the future of all of us as Canadians over the next generations.
On striving for objectivity with Generator Arctic
What we did with the Generator concept in the Arctic is by no means unique or complete, but we did our absolute best to try to let people see the Arctic as it is, not through a filter. Much as I did with the photos I shared from the International Space Station, I want people just to see it and draw their own conclusions based on what they see, not on someone feeding them what they’re supposed to be thinking about this part of the world. I think the more of that we can do, the healthier we’ll be and the better we’ll treat the Arctic.
Clockwise from opposite bottom: An old building at Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere Island; Qilaqitsoq, in west Greenland, a former Inuit settlement where 500-year-old mummies were found in the 1970s; Chris Hadfield and musician Danny Michel jam on...
Clockwise from top left: Uummannaq, a community of 1,500 in northwest Greenland; Mckinley Bay, on northern Ellesmere Island off Tanquary Fiord; ice floes in Jones Sound, north of Devon Island.