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.
I encountered Leroy and Karen Garry a couple weeks ago when I spoke at the Canadian Authors – Metro Vancouver meeting. My topic was the use of ‘voice’ in writing and I shared some of my experience with marketing. Karen had been asking me many questions, and at the end of the meeting, we exchanged books: her book Leroy for my Sun Dogs and Yellowcake. Two more opposite books you couldn’t imagine.
Leroy – the message
When Karen told me her book was an adult book, I thought I had misheard her. I was looking at a book that looked more like a children’s book. She was right of course.
Leroy is a commentary on our changing earth, changing because of our actions and inaction. Karen peppers the pages with colourful, detailed and whimsical drawings, felted creatures, block text that is as compelling as the drawings, and a heartfelt message that even a child could understand.
I confess. This is not a ghost story, but another story from the ghost uranium mine – Gunnar Mines, Saskatchewan.
The residents left Gunnar over fifty years ago. The mine is long gone. The buildings have disappeared – sold and shipped on the lake to Fort McMurray or Uranium City when the mine closed, or demolished as part of the cleanup in 2011. Even Uranium City people, itinerant fishermen, and hopeful geologists can no longer access the site.
But more than fifty years of stories still knock at my door. The latest is from Kelly Nelson who spent eleven weeks at the vacated town in the summer of 1978. He was a draftsman for a technology company.
Kelly Nelson’s first thoughts
My first thoughts of the site when I arrived was, what a dump; not that there was much trash lying around, but it wasn’t the well-kept small town I grew up in (Unity, SK). By the time I left, I had completely flipped that around and was sad to leave as I found the place so interesting, between the mine-site and the geography with the huge rock outcroppings, trees growing out cracks in the rocks and so on.
The fishing was great. I think we pioneered barbless fishing as we knew what was going to happen, so we’d just catch and release. For three weeks in the middle of summer we stopped fishing because it was boring! Also, the cook would do a fish dish for us only once every 10 days due to the natural mercury in the water. Eventually we ran out of hooks. I was the only one in the crew who didn’t catch an Arctic Grayling, as much as I tried.
I got lost while fishing. One evening I walked west of the west townsite on a trail that paralleled the lake shore. I fished for about three hours and when I started walking back I headed to the trail. After a really long time I came to the lake shore again and was completely dumbfounded. By then I could make out the mine site from the shore, so I just followed it back home. I realized I had walked in a large arc and learned how easy it was to get lost. I wrote my brother that night and asked him to send me a navigation compass.
Reading outside at midnight on June 21 – that seemed so bizarre to me, but so neat as well. I still remember the book – Helter Skelter by Truman Capote .
I agree with the people in the book who suggested Gunnar imparted a sort of mystical sense of peace. We had no TVs and no music radio, only five cassettes (the Grease soundtrack, an ABBA tape, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, Linda Ronstad, and one other I no longer remember), so the forest provided most of the sound we heard. I must say to this day I feel completely at ease in any forest, and I think my time at Gunnar played a role in that.
Thank you for writing the book; even though my time in Gunnar came half a generation after it was abandoned as a mine and settlement, it remains a most memorable part of my life.
Kelly’s review of Sun Dogs & Yellowcake
I quite enjoyed the book; I think you did a very good job of writing it – explaining the background for how the company and townsite came to be, life there, and the follow-up. For a subject that could have been dry, to me it was very interesting. You appear to be an accomplished and experienced writer.
To learn more about /my book Sun Dogs & Yellowcake about the ghost uranium mine, Gunnar Mines, click here. To follow me on Facebook, clickheree.
A writer’s choice of voice for a story or novel is one of the most important decisions he or she will make. Voice can be equally important in nonfiction. I will be speaking about voice at the upcoming meeting of The Canadian Authors Association – Metro Vancouver (including Victoria) on January 9, 2018.
I saw the documentary filmThey Shall Not Grow Old just after Christmas. Director Peter Jackson produced this powerful film about the Great War based on 100 hours of historical film footage and 600 hours of audio recordings from the British War Museum.
His team enhanced hundreds of hours of film by sharpening images and adding colour. The motion is less jerky and more natural than in the original clips.
The original footage also predated movie sound but Jackson could see the soldiers’ lips moving, so he tasked expert lip readers with interpreting their words. The experts determined the correct dialogue – with appropriate accents – and this was incorporated into the film.
Jackson also wrestled with how to do justice to the men who had served and lost lives in the war. He decided the story could only be told by using the men’s own words from the audio tapes and then superimposing these over the footage. The result is an authentic and heart wrenching trip into the trenches and battle zones of WWI.
I reached a similar conclusion about voice four years prior when writingmy nonfiction book Sun Dogs and Yellowcake. I determined that former residents of the uranium town where I grew up, must tell their stories in their own words. In this way, life in a mining town in the 1950s and ’60s and the personalities of its residents would be more authentically portrayed.
To hear more about voice and my choice in Sun Dogs, you are welcome to attend the upcoming meeting of Canadian Authors Association – Metro Vancouver (including Victoria) on January 9, 2018. For information about the presentation, please click here.
I recommend that everyone see They Shall Not Grow Old. To watch the trailer click here.
To see more information about Sun Dogs and Yellowcake, click here.
Gunnar’s reclamation woes means that I focus a lot of attention on its current state. When I lived in Gunnar Mines in the 1950s and ’60s on the banks of St. Mary’s Channel (off Lake Athabasca by a pinch), it was a halcyon world. Forty years later, I learned that it – my home town – was a contaminated site.
The objective of the Gunnar reclamation is to eliminate or reduce human and ecological impact so that traditional use of resources next to the site can continue safely.
Full disclosure: I earned my living as a mining and securities lawyer. Second full disclosure: mining makes this world go round. Try to think of one thing you possess or do that is not connected to mining. Everything is made with, made of, transported by or otherwise involves minerals. And no mining occurs without some impact on the earth. Unless we go back to the stone age, we are going to mine.
I wrote Sun Dogs and Yellowcake to celebrate the magical life that most people enjoyed in Gunnar. But I knew I could not write it without discussing the aftermath of the uranium mining conducted there.
Here are the bare facts. The mining was conducted in great haste and under considerable secrecy. The federal government promoted the mining in order to supply the United States with uranium during the Cold War. Northern Saskatchewan was wilderness and Canada had a lot of wilderness – what did a mine and its residue matter in such a remote area? No significant environmental rules governed the mine’s operation or closing save one decision regarding the open pit which did more harm than good.
At closing, the mine moved out or sold only some houses, machinery, the Johnny B tug and barges, and the DC-3 plane. Subsequent visitors found coffee cups left on tables, clothing in drawers, personnel information in office cabinets. Mine buildings, machinery, the school, recreation centre and hospital remained to slowly deteriorate over the years. The headframe stood as monument to the town until demolished in 2011.
In the early 2000s, Saskatchewan undertook the reclamation of the site as the company that owned the mine ceased to exist decades prior. Saskatchewan is now suing the federal government for not paying its share of costs. The original agreement between them contemplated costs of just under $25 million. Costs are now estimated at $280 million.
Gunnar reclamation woes
The site will never be perfect but the reclamation can achieve its objective and reasonable success. Why can’t they just get it done? Here is my interview on the John Gormley Live show regarding this.
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”