Gunnar Mines, a visit to the past and a look to the future
Author: Patricia Sandberg
A former mining and securities lawyer, Patricia relied on her family’s history and interviews of over 150 people to write about the Cold War uranium mining town in Northern Canada that residents said was ‘the best place they ever lived’. She is now working on a novel.
Sun Dogs and Yellowcake has won two international awards, was shortlisted for the Canadian Authors Fred Kerner award, and was finalist for Whistler Independent Book Awards 2017.
We happened to eat in the same restaurant which had opened only the day before. Only one other couple was in the restaurant. As I recall, it was not a very good meal.
Our two tables finished around the same time. While the two husbands were paying the bills, the other woman and I walked outside and started to talk. They lived in Courtney BC part-time, the woman told me, and the rest of the time in England. Then she mentioned her husband was Swedish.
As things often do, the one thing led to another. Being a fellow Swede (blood slightly watered by it having been a generation or two back), I gave Peter a copy of Sun Dogs, saying, “there are a few Swedes in this book. You might enjoy it.”
That second thing led to the third thing. Peter was not only Swedish but the editor of Swedish Press magazine. The link above is to Peter Berlin’s generous article/review of Sun Dogs in Swedish Press. The fourth thing will be an article by me in Swedish Press next year.
The October 2018 edition of Swedish press includes articles about climate change, Swedish space exploration, clean tech and the feature: How Happy Are the Swedes? If you want to know more about Swedish Press, click here
If you want to read a couple funny stories about life up north – including the Gunnar Cadaver, click here. The photo below shows just how different working conditions were in the Gunnar mine, in Canada’s North, in the 1950s.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Public speaking ranks right up there with fear of dying! Pretty powerful! And terrifying.
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.
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 photoshere. More will be added later.
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.
My husband Robert Mackay and I had such fun in Kelowna this past Thursday speaking to an enthusiastic writers’ group about the pain and gain of traditional versus independent publishing. The audience of about thirty stayed glued to their chairs for the full two hours which we like to think was because of our dynamic presentation and not because they had fallen asleep. They had so many thoughtful questions and it was lovely to share their enthusiasm about writing and literature.
This is a relatively new but growing writers’ group that meets in and receives positive support from the West Kelowna Library. Blair Jean, entertaining raconteur and author of a number of Northern books, and gracious Geneva Ensign manage the group and were our hosts. Blair spent 50 years in Northern Alberta collecting local – including indigenous – history and stories, and his books, including Clearwater Memoirs, are treasures for their preservation of Canada’s past. Geneva is awaiting the publication of her book Community Healing: A Transcultural Model that draws on her extensive work experience, and is a guide for healing of individuals and communities. Continue reading “Kelowna writers’ group is flourishing”
Two dynamic women, Lynn Duncan and Kilmeny Denny, run Vivalogue which provides consultation, editing, design, and other self-publishing services in North America and the United Kingdom. Lynn and Kilmeny decided in 2016 that the time had come to recognize excellence in the Canadian market through a juried competition to determine the best self-published books. The awards, jointly administered by the Whistler Writing Society and Vivalogue Publishing, are known as the Whistler Independent Book Awards and are the first to be offered in Canada for the independent publishing industry. In 2017, a manuscript competition was added.
Farida Somjee won the 2017 Fiction Award for The Beggar’s Dance. Paul Shore was the non-fiction winner for Uncorked: My Year in Provence. Fiction finalists were Annie Daylon for Of Sea and Seed: The Kerrigan Chronicles, Book 1, and R.L. Prendergast for The Confessions of Socrates. Non-fiction finalists were Monique Layton for Notes from Elsewhere: Travel and Other Matters and Patricia Sandberg for Sun Dogs and Yellowcake: Gunnar Mines—A Canadian Story. Louis Druehl won the manuscript competition and his book Kwai Scrolls was launched at the Whistler Writers Festival. Continue reading “Vivalogue Publishing, a champion of independently-published authors”
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”
I am thrilled to be attending the Whistler Writers Festival from October 12th to 15th. It promises to be a whirlwind of literary enthusiasm with touches of comedy and music as well as lively cabarets and salons of the literary variety. Some of Canada’s best-loved authors, including David Chariandy, Leanne Dunic, Terry Fallis, Steven Heighton, Helen Humphreys, Grant Lawrence, Suzette Mayr, Sandra Ridley, Mark Leiren-Young, Terry Watada,Barbara Gowdy, Monia Mazigh, Frances Itani, Michael Harris and Lee Maracle will tempt us with their stories and share their insights. At the Saturday lunch, John MacLachlan Gray, Sheena Kamal, Michael Redhill, Alisa Smith and Jenny D. Williams, all authors with a penchant for crime (between the covers only), will share dark secrets. Continue reading “Whistler Writers Festival”
Thanks to Melissa Shaw of the Uranium Investing News for a great interview the other day. She not only perfectly captured the historical and mining background to the development of Gunnar Mines, she included one of my thoughts about mining practices today:
“People who lived in this town appreciated and valued what they did. Granted, there were some risks with uranium that they didn’t realize, but they really valued the life and they appreciated the efforts that the mining company made to make their lives good there. I feel like we have lost that with the fly-in fly-out [model]. We don’t have that appreciation. We don’t have a family connection to a place, and I think we miss out by that,” Sandberg said.
And then, my next view being of course totally biased in this – the importance of story-telling:
“I feel like we could do a much better job in the mining industry of telling our stories. There are so many stories that are untold about mining in Canada. If we’re not telling those stories they’re going to be lost. Not only that, but it is a way of reaching people who are not in the mining business and letting them understand what mining contributes not just to individual people but to our country,” [Sandberg] said.
There are a lot of “Sandberg saids” here. What do you think of these two points? I would love to know.
You can read the whole article here. And of course you can read the whole true story Sun Dogs and Yellowcake by contacting me here.