My grandfather Johan Ferdinand (Fred) Sandberg’s immigrant journey from Sweden took him to Canada’s east and west coasts and from southern Manitoba to Great Bear Lake in the far north.
Fred’s early work included delivering mail by dogsled. His construction skills contributed to Canada’s wartime activities, including at secret uranium projects to supply the Manhattan Project during WWII and during the Cold War. You can read about his journey here.
Fred’s story is like that of most immigrants, a decision by a man or woman to leave their home and family in search of a new and better life. It takes courage to make such a decision. It requires luck, resolve and the support of others to succeed. My grandfather had all of these qualities and received such support. Along the way, he participated by chance in significant developments in the early 20th century.
Extracted with permission from The Swedish Press. “My grandparents were passionate Canadians. They chose to fully contribute and assimilate into Canadian society while maintaining their core attachment to Sweden. Fred was only able to visit his family once, which must have been very difficult for all. Although I heard Swedish on records that Fred and Freda played on their turntable, I heard never heard them speak it. None of their children spoke Swedish. My grandparents showcased their heritage in their love of entertaining, the lavish Christmas table weighted down with pickled herring and pigs’ feet, and my grandmother’s famous meatballs.”
The Swedish Press is a very fine magazine about – you guessed it – all things Swedish. Their exquisite judgement is shown in their very positive review of Sun Dogs and Yellowcake which you can see here and which I wrote about here.
“Sundogs & Yellow
Cake: Gunnar Mine – a Canadian Story” by Patricia Sandberg
“In February 2017, back when we met at the Artful Dodger, our luncheon speaker was Patricia Sandberg, author of SunDogs and Yellowcake: Gunnar Mines- A Canadian Story. Patricia spoke about her experiences growing up in Gunnar and related a few of the stories in her book. I purchased a copy of the book, which Patricia graciously signed.
The book sat on the shelf in
our living room until I was packing for a beach vacation in February of this
year. It turned out to be a perfect vacation read, with relatively short,
self-contained chapters that weave the author’s coming-of-age story with
touching accounts of the families who made a life under trying and primitive
circumstances, all against the backdrop of the Cold War nuclear arms race. The
author corresponded with more than 100 former residents of Gunnar and their
absorbing personal accounts capture the building of healthy, vibrant community
despite isolation and a harsh environment. The book is lavishly illustrated
with photographs and sketches by A. Y. Jackson and other well-known Canadian
The author’s coming of age in an isolated northern mining town resonated with my own experience as a young man who found himself in an isolated northern mining town that shaped me professionally and personally and blessed me with many enduring friendships. I enjoyed Sun Dogs and Yellowcake as much as anything I’ve read in recent memory, and, with summer just around the corner, I would highly recommend it as a vacation (or bush camp) read.”
Published in The Rock Record 2001-9 by Saskatchewan Geological Society (SGS)
Thanks: Many thanks to Lynn Kelley for surprising me with this book review and to SGS for including it in The Rock Record.
Footnote: The Gunnar Headframe stood from 1954 (approx) to 2011 as a beacon to all those who ventured to explore the ghost mining town of Gunnar. In 2011, the headframe was demolished.
YouTube videos: The headframe’s sad demise and plans for cleanup of the Gunnar site. Louie Mercredi and his crew building the ice road over Lake Athabasca to Gunnar. Mr. Mercredi is much braver than I!
Purchase information: To read harrowing tales of survival and loss on Lake Athabasca, get a copy of Sun Dogs and Yellowcake here or through Amazon (hardcopy or e-book)
Book reviews are best when they come as surprises and are full of praise.
Review by Elizabeth McLean, author of the exquisite book “The Swallows Uncaged – A Narrative in Eight Panels.”
Elizabeth McLean: “I have now finished reading “Sun Dogs and Yellowcake.” It’s a lovely book. What impressed me the most is how well you combined the ‘serious’ account of radium-uranium and its industrial development in Canada with the human stories of the families who lived the mining life in Gunnar.
Their daily active lives, traumas and celebrations warmed my heart. They built a truly intimate and loving community in such an isolated and harsh environment. The workers of Gunnar and their families make the book precious. You were right to give them a voice.
The structure of the book is a marvel: the narrative interspaced with pertinent epigraphs, quotations, digressions, personal testimonies and
reminiscences, and excellent maps and photos.
It is such an interesting book, and I mean interesting in
the best sense of the word – absorbing to read, as well as satisfying to peruse visually. I thought a book
about a uranium mine would be dry and tedious? Ha!
The ending is traumatic. I had tears in my eyes seeing the hospital float on the waves of Lake Athabasca.”
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.
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 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.
I am pleased to share another review, this one from the other side of the world! The AusIMM Minerals Institute (that’s Aussie, folks) published a review in their August Bulletin Magazine. The following is an excerpt – the full review can be read here.
“…the author paints a vivid picture of daily life [in the small uranium mining town called Gunnar]. The resulting story of a strong and vibrant community spirit in the face of adversity and isolation has universal appeal and will certainly resonate with anyone who has lived in similar mining towns.” The reviewer then refers to the two international book awards received for the book and its shortlisting for two others, and continues: “In this reviewer’s opinion, these awards are well-deserved.” Continue reading “Sun Dogs and Yellowcake goes ‘down under’”
The Canadian Authors Association (CAA) is a national organization which since 1921 has been dedicated to promoting writers across Canada and to encouraging works of literary and artistic merit. It provides a wide variety of programs, services and resources, and advocacy on behalf of writers. Its annual CanWrite Conference offers authors the opportunity to learn from one another and from experts in the field.
One outstanding service the CAA provides is its Literary Awards which not only recognize a writer’s craft but also provide much-valued recognition and publicity.
On June 24th, CAA announced the 2017 winners:
Fiction: Alissa York for The Naturalist (Randomhouse Canada) Nominees: Gail Anderson-Dargatz for The Spawning Grounds (Alfred A. Knopf Canada); Madeleine Thien for Do Not Say We Have Nothing(PenguinRandomhouse)
Poetry: Johanna Skibsrud for The Description of the World (Wolsak and Wynn) Nominees: Juliane Okot Bitek for 100 Days (University of Alberta Press); D.S. Stymeist for The Bone Weir (Frontenac House Poetry)
Canadian History: Charlotte Gray for The Promise of Canada (Simon & Schuster Canada) Nominees: Peter C. Newman for Hostages to Fortune (Simon & Schuster Canada); Jane Urquhart for A Number of Things (HarperCollins Canada)
Emerging Writer: Eva Crocker Nominees: Richard Kelly Kemick; Maria Toorpakai
Canadian Authors Fred Kerner Award: Margo Wheaton forThe Unlit Path Behind the House (Queen’s University Press) Nominees: Debra Komar for Black River Road (Goose Lane Editions); Patricia Sandberg for Sun Dogs and Yellowcake (Crackingstone Press)
Thanks to Canadian Authors for supporting Canadian writers and for my nomination. Congratulations to the winners and nominees. Thrilled to be in such accomplished company!