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.

Passionate Public Speaking

Public speaking ranks right up there with fear of dying! Pretty powerful! And terrifying.

Talk! In Public!

But fear of public speaking can be overcome. I know because I did it. And I’ll be sharing how at the Okanagan Valley Writers Festival April 7, 2018 in sunshine and wine country: lovely Penticton, British Columbia.

Best of all, I’ll be with a fabulous group of other writers. Topics range from writing erotica to poetry; editing and researching; building story layers, scenes and characters; publishing traditionally and the solo route; writing a  dynamite query letter, perfecting your pitch, and then selling the darn thing. Oh yes, and Snake-oil. Check it out here.

Continue reading “Passionate Public Speaking”

The story of Gunnar Mines in photos

Sun Dogs and Yellowcake, my book about Gunnar Mines, contains over 180 photos and three custom maps. But in the course of writing the story, I collected many hundreds more.

I thought it would be fun to tell the story of this long-abandoned, now-demolished but much-loved uranium mining town in northern Saskatchewan again, but this time in new photos.

You can find the first album of photos here. More will be added later.

Dressed in our Sunday best. Copyright Sandberg family

Gunnar Mines was at the centre of Canada’s uranium history-with ties to the production of uranium for the atomic bomb in WWII, and as a producer of uranium for the Cold War. For its residents, it was the best place they ever lived.

Hope you enjoy them, let me know what you think.

2017 Whistler Writers Festival was a huge success

Whistler at its best – a fresh winter snow

Whistler rarely disappoints its guests and last weekend of the Whistler Writers Festival was no exception as a dusting of snow brightened our first morning. The action-packed four days attracted literary giants and neophytes to share their knowledge and the pure joy of writing and reading literature. Such luminaries as Frances Itani, JJ Lee, David Chariandy, Terry Fallis and Lee Maracle – to name just a very few – generously entertained and informed us. Continue reading “2017 Whistler Writers Festival was a huge success”

Women In Mining BC: Annual Cocktail Reception 2017

Organizing group of WIM BC 2017 Cocktail Reception – and me

 

Speaking to a very attentive audience

It was such a pleasure to speak to the Women in Mining BC group on Thursday, May 17th in the lovely Pan Pacific Hotel. When I practiced mining and securities law, it was a heads-down, get-the-job-done approach and I never joined this group. I now understand what I missed as the camaraderie and support in the group is tremendous.

The organizer of the annual cocktail event asked me if I could share some inspiring words in my role as the evening’s key-note speaker.

The speech was tough to write; Continue reading “Women In Mining BC: Annual Cocktail Reception 2017”

Nesbitt-LaBine Uranium Mines

Trespassers may be prosecuted

In the early 1950s, uranium mining was a highly secretive operation and the warning sign in the above photo warns prospective visitors.

The Nesbitt-LaBine ore body, discovered in 1950, was a hope and a promise that did not last. Investor interest was high as Gilbert LaBine, who had made Canada’s first discovery of uranium on Great Bear Lake, was a major owner. His partner in the venture was Johnnie Nesbitt, a daring and accomplished bush pilot. The mine was nestled beside Eagle Lake near Uranium City, in the famed Beaverlodge District at Lake Athabasca.

As he had done at the Port Radium, Beresford Lake and Long Lake mines run by Gilbert and Charles LaBine, my grandfather was overseeing the construction and my father working as part of the crew. In December 1951, my mother took me, at the tender age of three months, from a warm house in southern Saskatchewan to join my father where we would all live in a tent house.

My uncle Don Sandberg with Prince. Don’s tent house in background. Photo courtesy Ollie Sandberg

Forecasts for a home-run were high but neither the Eagle Lake deposit nor other small deposits found by Nesbitt-LaBine yielded much ore and the mine closed in 1956. The partnership between LaBine and Nesbitt would fizzle even earlier, over a controversy involving a new prospect on the Crackingstone Peninsula. A controversy? Of course – it was a mining deal. The new prospect? Gunnar Mines.

Gilbert LaBine, Father of Uranium

Gilbert LaBine on right

The Republic of Mining website includes Gilbert LaBine in a list of Canada’s ten most important mining men. LaBine was often referred to as Canada’s Father of Uranium. You can see the Republic of Mining article here.

In the 1930s photo above (copyright LaBine family), a young Gilbert Labine is on the right. LaBine is the adventurous and determined mine builder who features in Sun Dogs and Yellowcake. He discovered both Port Radium at Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories and my town, Gunnar Mines, on Lake Athabasca. Port Radium produced radium in the 1930s for medical purposes until it was discovered after the start of World War II that its waste product – uranium – had more value. Port Radium’s uranium contributed to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Gunnar Mines’ uranium was sold to the United States to support its arms race against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In a recent interview, I discuss the history of uranium in northern Canada and life in the Athabasca uranium camp that sprang up during the 1950s uranium rush.  Click here, then choose podcast, then Adam Stirling,  and go to the December 1st audio file for Sun Dogs and Yellowcake.

Thanks for stopping by!

Republic of Mining features Sun Dogs and Yellowcake

Under strict security
Under strict security

Excerpt from Sun Dogs and Yellowcake

Shooting the Elephant

Re-enter Gilbert LaBine, some twenty years after his radium score and now sixty-two years old. LaBine, in his nominal positions as president and director of Eldorado, was well informed about Eldorado’s moves in the Beaverlodge area. He was also not averse to conducting a little business of his own.

His first foray was with a highly competent, experienced pilot named John “Johnny” Nesbitt, who had spent his life flying in Canada’s north country, including for Eldorado and its Great Bear Lake operations. When Eldorado switched its focus to Lake Athabasca, Nesbitt added the Beaverlodge operation to his flight path.

He had flown the two prospectors St. Louis and Larum to what would later be Eldorado’s Ace mine, and knew the area well. He too had been bitten by the uranium bug and, when not flying, combed the bush looking for his own lucky strike. In 1950, he found and staked a pitchblende prospect on claims that Eldorado had let lapse near Eagle Lake. This prospect would become the Nesbitt-Labine uranium mine.

Johnny Nesbitt wanted to sell the claims to his employer Eldorado; however, he had an unidentified partner who was more interested in a transaction with Gilbert LaBine. Perhaps for LaBine, it was a bit of a poke at the federal government for confiscating Eldorado, and at Eldorado’s president, Bill Bennett, with whom he did not get along.

Whatever the motivation, LaBine promptly resigned from Eldorado’s board of directors to become president of the new Nesbitt-Labine Uranium Mines Limited. Nesbitt did not have much choice but to switch to flying for the new entity. Construction started in 1952 and the small community of Nesbitt-Labine started to grow around the mine.

An interesting game to play….

Continued at the Republic of Mining website

The art of making art, Donna Lee Dumont

IMG_2183 June 23 2016
Alcohol Ink 1

Following upon the previous blog post about Gunnar Mines alumni, Donna Lee’s role as educator can’t be separated from her art. In 2012, she wrote and colourfully illustrated a children’s book Peter Fidler and the Métis. Fidler was an explorer and mapmaker for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He married a Cree woman and Donna Lee is a descendant of this union. The book relates Fidler’s story but is, at the same time, a portrait of the oft-troubled Métis history in Canada and Donna Lee’s personal journey into her Aboriginal heritage. Continue reading “The art of making art, Donna Lee Dumont”