Canada’s uranium helped end the second world war and armed the next, the Cold War. An exploration frenzy swept the western world and mining magnate Gilbert LaBine’s new discovery at Gunnar Mines attracted attention across North America and beyond. Gunnar’s 800 residents—immigrants fleeing post-war Europe, job-seeking southerners, and the area’s First Nations and Métis—found adventure, romance, tragedy, and a freedom never again to be equaled. Meanwhile, lamps made of uranium drill core sat in their homes and their children played at the tailings pond. Sun Dogs and Yellowcake is their story. Part memoir, part oral history, Sun Dogs and Yellowcake is a thoughtful and often humorous account of a recent but largely forgotten era
Sun Dogs visits Nanaimo
I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be presenting a talk with slide show about Gunnar Mines, uranium, and my book Sun Dogs and Yellowcake in Nanaimo, BC. at 3 pm. on February 6. Hope you can join me.
Location: Nanaimo Harbourfront Library 90 Commercial St Nanaimo BC V9R 5G4
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’”
Sun Dogs has just won its second international award – it is winner of the International Book Award in the ‘History: General’ category.
My book tells the story of a small uranium mining town in northern Canada, set against the backdrop of the Cold War. I am so pleased that it has received this recognition. Not only does the book reveal history which is long forgotten but the people in Gunnar Mines, Saskatchewan share their lives, laughs, triumphs, and tragedies in this portrait of 1950s Canada. It’s the book about a little town that could and did defy its label as a regional story because it touches everyone who reads it.
Jeffrey Keen, President & CEO of American Book Fest which administers the competition, says of the awards, “The 2017 results represent a phenomenal mix of books from a wide array of publishers throughout the world…. IBA’s success begins with the enthusiastic participation of authors and publishers and continues with our distinguished panel of industry judges who bring to the table their extensive editorial, PR, marketing, and design expertise.”
American Book Fest covers books from all sections of the publishing industry—mainstream, independent, & self-published.
For information about the first award, see the posting on this site about the International Publishers Award (IPPY) which was also for history.