August 2017

Book review: Sun Dogs and Yellowcake by Patricia Sandberg

  • By Richard Schodde MAusIMM, AusIMM Heritage Committee

This is a book about the history of a small uranium mining town called Gunnar that briefly existed in the far northern part of Canada in the 1950s. Based on detailed interviews, the author paints a vivid picture of daily life there. 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 title Sun Dogs and Yellowcake refers to both the mine’s output (uranium in the form of yellowcake) and the unusual atmospheric phenomenon seen at Gunnar that is associated with the reflection of sunlight off ice crystals in the air. This creates an arc of bright spots or pillars of light (‘sun dogs’) on either side of the sun.

The Gunnar uranium mine is located on the northern shore of Lake Athabasca in Saskatchewan, 710 km northeast of Edmonton. It was discovered in July 1952 and, due to the strategic imperatives of the time, was quickly rushed into production in 1955. Over its short ten-year life, the mine produced 8100 tonnes of U3O8. At its peak, 800 people lived and worked there.

Due to its remoteness, there was no road connection to the outside world. Instead, all people and materials had to travel to and from site by air (mainly on an ex-World War II cargo plane) or by water (either in a tug boat in the summer or over an ice road in the winter). As a result, all of the workers had to live on-site. Showing great foresight, the company provided (relatively) good housing and services, thereby encouraging family groups to move there. Many of these came from overseas seeking fortune and adventure – they certainly found both. The end result was a young, vibrant community that had to rely on each other for support and entertainment.

The author, Patricia Sandberg, was raised as a young child in Gunnar. Her book, covering 256 pages and more than 150 photos, chronicles the memories of over 100 people who lived and worked there. The stories are mainly focused on their personal experiences in terms of what motivated them to move to Gunnar, the work they did, how they coped with the extreme cold and the cramped housing, as well as dealing with the limited health, schooling, banking and shopping facilities. It also details the various forms of entertainment, recreation and relaxation (often associated with alcohol, in what was notionally a ‘dry town’). The large number of young married couples and long winter nights subsequently translated into a mini baby boom – which added its own dynamic to the place.

The personal histories are written in a fairly self-contained fashion – making it an easy and informal read. The interviews are well-crafted and heart-warming. Consequently, a casual browser can open the book at random and will be sure to find an interesting/amusing anecdote on any given page.

While the book briefly discusses the discovery, development and ultimate closure of the mine (and the associated environmental legacies of cleaning up a contaminated mine site), it does not cover the mining and processing practices used. In short, it is not a technical book; instead is an informal history of the social dynamics of a small isolated community – and for this reason it should appeal to the lay-reader/amateur sociologist/historian in all of us. A very good read!

As a postscript, in 2017 Sun Dogs and Yellowcake won the US 2017 International Book Award for ‘History: General’; an IPPY (US Independent Publishers) award for non-fiction; and has been shortlisted for two Canadian awards. In this reviewer’s opinion, these awards are well-deserved.

This book is available to purchase from www.patriciasandberg.com.  

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