Stefan Michalak was prospecting in the wilderness near Falcon Lake, Man., in 1967 when a flock of startled geese alerted him to something he couldn’t explain: a pair of floating, cigar-shaped objects.
One object quickly zipped away into the sky, but the other descended and remained in place for some time, according to his account.
Michalak says he examined the object at length and later shared what he saw in sketches, which looked strikingly similar to a flying saucer. He thought he heard voices inside the mysterious contraption and called out to it, but there was no answer.
Then the object took off, blasting him with hot gas and leaving him with a distinctive checkerboard-patterned burn on his chest — a burn that has been extensively documented in police, government and medical records since the incident.
Michalak’s story remains one of the most well-known and well-documented U̳F̳O̳ cases in Canadian history, thanks in part to Chris Rutkowski, a kid who lived down the street from Michalak at the time, and who would grow up to become a science writer and Canada’s most well-known U̳F̳O̳logist — or expert in U̳F̳O̳s.
In his early years, Rutkowski studied astronomy in university and worked at an observatory, where he fielded calls about U̳F̳O̳s that his professors didn’t want to deal with. Rutkowski would head out into the farmlands of Manitoba to investigate those claims, and soon he began compiling a trove of information about such sightings.
“I was told that there’s nothing to the U̳F̳O̳ phenomenon, and yet here was witness after witness after witness who said that he or she had seen something that they couldn’t understand,” he said. “And in most cases, I could explain them. But there are a few cases that puzzled me and intrigued me.”
The case that really stuck with him was the story told by his old neighbour, Mr. Michalak. Rutkowski eventually went back to his hometown and reconnected with Michalak’s son Stan, who was around his age.
Together, Rutkowski and Stan went through Stefan Michalak’s account and wrote a book about the Falcon Lake incident — a book that would become an iconic chapter in the story of U̳F̳O̳s in Canada.Interest in U̳F̳O̳s has waxed and waned over time, but Rutkowski has continued to run surveys and collect notes about various sightings in Canada over the years. He’s also become Canada’s go-to U̳F̳O̳ expert in the media — a role that saw him working especially hard this summer, ahead of the U.S. government’s highly anticipated report on so-called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP).
Rutkowksi says he’s dedicated decades of his life to U̳F̳O̳ research because he’s fascinated by the different attitudes about them in science and pop culture.
“The U̳F̳O̳ phenomenon is largely rejected by science,” he says. “But at the same time it’s embraced, almost without question, by a lot of people who are searching for meaning in their lives.”
Global News sat down with Rutkowski for a wide-ranging chat about U̳F̳O̳s in mid-August, after a summer filled with talk about mysterious craft, government cover-ups and little green men from Mars.
Rutkowski spoke at length about the U̳F̳O̳ phenomenon, the search for a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ life and what that search tells us about humans.
Canada, the United States and official U̳F̳O̳ records
Global News: The public interest in U̳F̳O̳s really seemed to peak in June when we finally got that sweeping report to Congress about UAPs. The report is now out. What were your thoughts on it?
Chris Rutkowski: The UAP Task Force report that came out in June was kind of a Rorschach test for a lot of U̳F̳O̳ fans because people who wanted to believe that there was indeed a disclosure or a cover-up looked to the report as proof of that, whereas skeptics and debunkers looked at it to say there’s really nothing there because it provided very little information. It stated that there had been a task force and they were looking forward to doing further stuff in the future. It’s really not giving us enough information to forge ahead.
But in Canada, we do have a lot of information about what’s going on. In fact, the National Research Council and the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police all cooperated in investigating U̳F̳O̳s in Canada up until about 1995. And after that, it was handed off to Transport Canada. So we actually have a very good record of what was being seen. And there are literally thousands upon thousands of cases, many more than we have information for from the United States.
GN: What would you like to see Canada do with all the reports about U̳F̳O̳s that it receives?
CR: Canada should be more involved right now. We do have pilots making reports to Transport Canada and now the Canadian government is for the most part hanging onto the cases and not making them public. And yet, at the same time, the category U̳F̳O̳ is used by Transport Canada in its daily reports from time to time when pilots see something like lights in the sky that shouldn’t be there, things just seen on radar that shouldn’t be there and so forth.
We do know that there are many things being seen. And even if we take the possibility of a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s out of the equation, if pilots are seeing unusual craft near them or that’s in some cases near collisions, if there’s something wrong with the technology or if in fact the pilots are seeing things that shouldn’t be there… because these are people upon whom we rely every day for our safety, and there’s a necessary requirement that the cases be investigated and the public be made aware of what’s going on in the friendly skies.
A̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s and the human need to believe
GN: Some people think U̳F̳O̳s are a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ visitors. Do you think a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s exist?
CR: I share the belief with most of my astronomy colleagues that there is probably life in the universe out there somewhere, but travelling between the stars is just so difficult. And we just don’t have any easy way of understanding how that would be possible.
And yet, our sun’s pretty average and our Earth has only been around for a paltry number of billion years. Given a little more time — and there are stars much older than our own sun — maybe there’s a planet out there with a civilization that’s tens of thousands of years more developed. They might have found a way of bending the laws of physics so that they might be travelling between the stars.
And if we look back to the UAP report, some of the cases that people have seen, the videos of where these objects zip around, seemingly defying the laws of physics and the pilots are reporting these things that actually literally flew circles around their plane, it’s very tempting to say that these things are a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ spacecraft — but we just don’t have the proof.
We have to be very, very careful doubting Thomases in this case, because sometimes our eyes and technology can play tricks on us. And there might be some very advanced weaponry or technical things out there that that we may not be aware of or maybe it’s just so classified that it hasn’t been released to the public or even to Congress.
So it’s possible that what we’re seeing might be evidence of a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s, although if it is, we need more proof before you can say it is.
I think we’re so willing as humans to look up into the sky and hope that somebody out there has solved all the problems we’re dealing with right now, whether it be climate change or overpopulation or pandemics, that maybe somebody out there can come down and help us through or save us.
It’s nice to think that out there in the universe, there is a place where people are living a little more in harmony and we don’t have to worry about these things and they can teach us something.
GN: What do you think the U̳F̳O̳ phenomenon tells us about humanity?
CR: Maybe the U̳F̳O̳ phenomenon itself is teaching us that we should be trying to save our planet ourselves and live in harmony a little bit better. And using science, because after all, if we’re talking a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ technology, travelling between the stars, that’s real science. If we turn towards science rather than reject science, maybe our world would be a lot better for all of us. Maybe there’s a lesson there in the speculation about a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s.
GN: One of the big challenges when discussing the possibility of a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s is that it’s so hard to prove a negative, especially when we can’t scan the entire universe for evidence. But given the vastness of space, it is easy to think that we’re not the only occurrence of life anywhere.
CR: It’s very likely that there’s an advanced civilization out there in the universe somewhere. Statistically, we understand through stellar evolution that it would be relatively common for an Earth-like planet to show up.
Are we unique and alone in the galaxy?
GN: I’d love to touch on the Fermi Paradox, the idea that if the universe is so vast, there must be life somewhere beyond Earth — but if we haven’t seen it, there must be a reason why. Perhaps all life faces a major hurdle at some point, and it either dies out or overcomes that hurdle and thrives. Perhaps we’ve already overcome it, or perhaps it’s ahead of us with climate change. What do you think of that idea?
CR: The problem of trying to figure out whether there’s e̳x̳t̳r̳a̳t̳e̳r̳r̳e̳s̳t̳r̳i̳a̳l̳ life has been approached from a number of directions by people over the decades. One of the most famous ones was Frank Drake’s equation, where he tried to calculate how many c̳i̳v̳i̳l̳i̳z̳a̳t̳i̳o̳n̳s̳ there were. There were a lot of assumptions, and because we only have one example in Earth, it’s hard to use that as an example. It was really just a wild guess.
But where are the a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s? Are they close by or are they closer to the centre of our galaxy or in a spiral arm that’s on the other side of the galaxy from us? And it’s a lot more difficult to travel between the stars than what we see in Star Wars and Star Trek. We don’t have the warp drive yet.
Maybe, as has been suggested by some U̳F̳O̳ fans, the government has been back-engineering some saucers that were recovered from Roswell in 1947 and maybe we’ll be just on the cusp of interstellar travel soon. That would be nice. But we’re living in the age of speculation. We are probably disappointed if the a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s aren’t there in reality, because we see them on TV and in the movies all the time. We assume that there’s a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s out there just itching to contact us in some way. Is it going to happen within our lifetimes? Maybe.
If they’re out there, you’d think they would be searching for creatures like themselves, and maybe that’s who we are. But at the same time, we’re hard to find, even though we’re radiating radio waves. We’re actually not visible to a lot of potential c̳i̳v̳i̳l̳i̳z̳a̳t̳i̳o̳n̳s̳, so maybe they don’t know we’re here yet, and maybe it’s just about time. Are we going to destroy our planet one way or another before c̳i̳v̳i̳l̳i̳z̳a̳t̳i̳o̳n̳s̳ reach us, or are we going to make it just in time?
GN: And there are so many other possibilities. Maybe life looks completely different from us on other worlds, and the a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s are giant clouds or something that we can’t communicate with. Or maybe other c̳i̳v̳i̳l̳i̳z̳a̳t̳i̳o̳n̳s̳ are staying quiet because they’re hiding from some horrible interstellar threat, and here we are shouting into space.
CR: Some have said that we’re the quarantined planet and there’s a big sign out there on the edge of our solar system saying: “Stay away, this race is crazy.”
Looking for life in all the wrong places
GN: There’s a theory that the a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s have come to Earth and they’re hiding here while observing us — buzzing our military warships and building bases underwater, but never making contact. What do you think of that?
CR: I don’t struggle with these concepts because I don’t have that investment as a lot of U̳F̳O̳ fans trying to prove that the a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s are here. I’m more interested in the phenomenon itself. All the stories and the TV shows and the books and and everything about the U̳F̳O̳s. Why is it that we are so focused on this and it drives so many people?
We assume that a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s would look like something from Star Trek and Star Wars, but a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s could be something very, very different. There could be life underneath the oceans of Europa and other moons of planets in our own solar system that would look completely different from what we conceive of right now.
It could be something as simple as a patch of lichen on a rock on Mars that we simply don’t recognize. There could be life in plain sight that we don’t understand. And I think the science of exobiology is very exciting right now because we know what to look for and yet, we don’t. Life as we understand it needs water. And yet there are other ways that life could exist without water.
We may get to the point where one could say that life was literally right under our noses and we simply didn’t understand what we were looking at.
GN: What do you think it would do to science and pop culture if we found some less dramatic evidence of life, such as living bacteria on an asteroid or a lost piece of a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ space junk? What would it do to humans if they had that sort of incremental step toward proving a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ life, even if it wasn’t little green men in a spaceship?
CR: Confirmation of life outside of Earth would be very monumental. I think that would go a long way to reassuring us that we’re not alone. And if we’re not alone, then there’s hope that the human race might survive because there might be others out there going through the same type of thing we are. And I think that that would really offer a lot of encouragement and would spur a lot of science to try and find additional life. So I think it really would be a very catalytic event.