Uranium City kid and Gunnar cadaver

A Uranium City kid – now an adult – contacted me yesterday, on the second year anniversary of publishing Sun Dogs and Yellowcake. He recounted some tales of his time around Lake Athabasca, including an adventure involving a plane and a cadaver, but first some background.

Norseman plane picks up cadaver
A northern workhorse. The Norseman planes operated by McMurray Air Service Limited supplied Saskatchewan’s northern mining communities.

Brian Hemingson arrived in Uranium City, Saskatchewan – 25 air miles distance from Gunnar Mines, and a few short miles from the border with the Northwest Territories. It was 1956 and he was eleven years old. Uranium City was the ‘big smoke’ for Gunnar people until they wanted real action and flew to Edmonton.

The Saskatchewan government intended Uranium City, which would eventually reach about 5000 people, to serve northern mines indefinitely. No one realized that its survival depended on the continued operation of federally-owned Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited. When that corporation announced it was closing its uranium mines in 1982, Uranium City effectively shut down. Brian describes how, mere days before the announcement, mine personnel were touring new employees around Uranium City and pointing out the foundations of their future homes.

Gunnar became a ghost town in 1964 and Uranium City limps along with perhaps seventy residents on a good day. The stories, however, live on. Like every teenaged boy in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Brian had his share of adventures in Uranium City and some of those involved Gunnar Mines.

A short camping trip

One summer, Brian and a friend decided to walk from Uranium City to Gunnar. That involved some detouring and a fair bit of bushwhacking as there was no road linking the two communities. By the time they reached the mine, they were hungry and stopped in the cafeteria in the community centre. They had just ordered hamburger and chips and apple pie when the mine’s security guard walked in. Gunnar was a company town, closed to outsiders unless invited and apparently that applied also to kids. He asked questions:

“What are you doing here, where are you staying?”

“Came for a visit, going to camp by the airport,” they answered.

“Your parents know you are here?”

“Yes.”

The guard left and the boys felt any concerns had been addressed. When they finished their food, however, the security guy returned. He wanted to know if they wanted a ride back to the campsite. From his tone of voice, they knew it wasn’t optional. When they were dropped off at their proposed campsite, the guard said, “You boys have a nice safe trip back to Uranium City in the morning.” And that was the end of their Gunnar visit.

Gunnar Cadaver

When Brian was fifteen, he had a part-time job working at McMurray Air Service Limited. One day, he was asked to put gas in the Norseman for a flight to Gunnar. The pilot asked if Brian would like to go along on the trip and he said yes.

Then he watched as not one but two RCMP officers arrived with a large tin shipping container and boarded the plane. The plane landed on floats in St. Mary’s Channel and a boat approached and waved them in closer to the shore.

“What are we doing here?” Brian asked as the two police officers donned hip waders and jumped into the water.

“Got a floater,” was the answer. And then Brian saw a body on the beach. The men were having trouble getting the body into a body bag.

The pilot said, “Get out there and give them a hand – I want to get home for supper.”

Brian jumped out of the plane and waded through waist-deep water to the shore. The drowned man had been in the water for a while and various aquatic creatures had partaken of his bloated flesh.  Brian describes the experience as ‘like handling a slimy jackfish’. The group eventually managed to wrestle the body into the bag then struggled again to get the bagged corpse on board. Then Brian realized the purpose of the tin container: it was the coffin.

He had the dry heaves and the young cop was sick.

“Enjoy this trip, did you?” the pilot asked with a grin.

Brian told me yesterday, after reading Sun Dogs and Yellowcake, that the book “really brought out the spirit of the people up there.” That was the best praise possible as I knew from the outset that the story could only be told through the words of the people who lived there.

Brian spent his working life flying aircraft all over North America. He even flew a Twin Otter to Burma. He took the long route from Anchorage to Yellowknife, then Frobisher Bay, then through Europe. After many stops, he finally reached Burma. My thanks to Brian for sharing his stories.

Reflections on publishing Sun Dogs and Yellowcake

The headframe reminds us of Gunnar. Publishing Sun Dogs and Yellowcake brings the town back to life.
The Gunnar Mines headframe stood for more than 50 years after the mine closed, beckoning to all who passed by.

I have been reflecting on the two years that have passed since publishing Sun Dogs and Yellowcake – two years today.

Publishing your first book is an incredible joy. What you don’t realize when that moment arrives is that a book has a much larger life than what it contains within its pages.

Here is what Sun Dogs and Yellowcake has delivered for me.

History
  1. Re-connection to a ‘time and place’ and to the people who resided in Gunnar. People who had lost contact with their friends for more than fifty years have rekindled their friendships and memories. I have had the joy of reuniting with old friends and making many new ones.
  2. Preservation of the history of the small northern town of Gunnar Mines and honouring a former way of life. Its history was told best through the words of its inhabitants. And people with no connection to the area have shared and appreciated this history because of what it reveals about who we are as Canadians.
  3. Recognition of the significance of mining, an industry that helped form this country. Mining, including the production of uranium, continues to be a key part of Canada’s growth.
Story-telling
  1. Realization that the Canadian mining industry has a treasure chest of fabulous tales that unfortunately are being lost to time. I recall a dinner following the closing of a financing. The president and chief executive officer regaled us with adventures from a lifetime in mining. This was only a small sampling of stories that will likely never be told.
  2. Celebration of the small stories that together chronicle our lives. A narrative that shows where we have come from so we understand where we are.
Publishing Surprises

I did not have many expectations for this book about a little town in the middle of nowhere, in a time no one remembers. I initially thought it would appeal only to its former residents. It has surprised everyone. It has won awards, received significant publicity, and been appreciated by a broad audience.

What a journey!

The headframe in the photo above marked Gunnar’s existence and its passing. I like to think publishing Sun Dogs and Yellowcake has brought not just the town, which closed its doors in 1964, back to life, but also the era. For me personally, publishing has opened up a new world, for which I am very grateful.

The stories continue to roll in. Tomorrow,  a man who lived in the neighbouring community of Uranium City shares his adventures.