Radioactive and Here to Stay

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside Magazine, November 1994

Radioactive and Here to Stay

Say it loud and say it proud: Uranium City, Saskatchewan, boomtown, ghost town, antimecca of the atomic age, is still a great place to glow in.
By Rebecca Lee

From above, it's impossible to believe the land was once covered by mountains--crystalline mountains full of diamonds, gold, silver, uranium. Now, billions of years later, the mountains have eroded, their jewels falling deep into the earth. When I asked for a map of this area, I was given, strangely, a complicated cross-sectional chart of what it looks like under the earth, the rush of minerals and groundwater through the 10,000 variations of stone. It turns out that what I can see of the world--long, green tendrils of earth meandering through sapphire water--is simply a beautiful cover for its real history, which is taking place far below, in the cool, endlessly transforming elements.

I am flying over northern Saskatchewan, above the Canadian Shield, the largest stone in the world. Just when I've nearly forgotten that humans walk this earth, the plane banks and there suddenly appears a small, unreal settlement, miraculous, among many odd reasons, for the fact that it lies in such a forbidding place, on the northern shore of a mammoth lake called Athabasca. Logistically, building a small city here must have been slightly less nightmarish than building one in thin air. As the plane descends, the city begins to reveal itself. Surrounding almost every building is an array of scattered wooden beams and appliances and foamy insulation. Also, something sparkly. The whole city sparkles, literally, with broken glass. Many of the houses have no roofs, so it is possible to see their floor plans and even the patterns on their carpets. On one edge of town there is a small gilded forest, which turns out to be a car graveyard, the metal husks glinting in the sun, woven through with trees, a wild conflagration of metal and leaf. There is no motion anywhere, not in the houses nor on the streets. Finally, I do spot a vehicle, driving slowly. This, I will discover, is the city's taxi. Business is not great. After all, this is Uranium City, one of the world's largest ghost towns.

Uranium City is a profoundly isolated place beyond the reach of roads. To travel there one must take a series of smaller and smaller planes to a place where nature has buried her most complicated, ambiguous treasure: her largest store of uranium atoms. From the airport, one arrives in Uranium City on a wide, dusty street called Nuclear Avenue, its sidewalks lined with boarded-up buildings--formerly grocery stores, lawyers' offices, restaurants, and a locksmith.

The day I arrive, a little girl darts onto Nuclear Avenue from a side road and then retreats. The wind literally whistles through the town--the sound of distance as the buildings gradually separate board from board, and the sound of time (13 years, to be exact) since the Eldorado mining company closed its doors, scattering its workers and their families.

Still, there is that famous northern hospitality, even among the few left in a ghost town. Within hours of landing, I'm sitting in the pilot's backyard, just beyond the intersection of Fission Avenue and Uranium Road, eating lobster flown in from Nova Scotia. The pilot, Jim Langille, has also invited the unofficial mayor, Dean Classen, and the unofficial coroner, Rod Dubnick. The mayor also runs the gas station, and the coroner is also the fireman and justice of the peace and fixes all the power lines. The people who stayed here after the town closed wear a lot of hats.

When I use this phrase in conversation--"the town closed"--they all take mild offense. Dubnick, says, "You can't say that, eh? Nobody can close a town. There will always be people here."

I consider this a bit adamant, since we are sitting in the middle of a block that is nearly abandoned except for this and one other house. From where I sit I can see a car in the next yard. Through its open hood grows a single, green, leafy tree.

The sun hardly sets in the subarctic during the longest days of summer. Tonight, as we sit at Jim Langille's picnic table, it is bright, a pale gold light pouring over us. There is the warmth of a small town, but also the surreal quality of being way up here, near the top of the map, where you can hit a softball at midnight.

Later we take a drive, winding up and up through neon trees in Dubnick's truck, the first of many times he'll take me to a site ravaged by the effects of uranium mining. Dubnick strikes me as the quintessential northerner: resourceful, quietly generous, fiercely attached to the land. And his truck is the quintessential northern truck: old and battered, driven for so long that it has gone beyond the brink into a sort of excellent second wind. Dubnick tells me that someone's truck once fell off the back of an Athabasca barge, which is how a vehicle gets to or from Uranium City when the lake's not frozen. Winter came, ice covered the lake, and with the spring thaw Dubnick fished it out and sold it.

Now he stops at the top of a hill, and we walk onto a square of concrete. The cliff walls around us are magenta in the midnight dusk. A hundred feet below, a blue river snakes along. In the forties, this cement square was the foundation of a storage shed, and when the shed was torn down it became the town's makeshift roller rink.

A warm breeze of nostalgia blows up here. One can imagine, suddenly, the place teeming with people--people streaming in from the coasts of Canada, from the endless American summers of Florida and California, from Argentina and Czechoslovakia, from all over Europe, in fact, escaping Stalin or Hitler or just the war and its aftermath in general, to arrive in this northern town booming with high spirits, riding the great wave of the Cold War and the promise of a new, clean source of power.

As we stand here I notice that one of the majestic rocky hills surrounding us is not topped by pine trees, as are the rest. Dubnick tells me that hill is man-made; it's close to a hundred feet high, chock-full of buried radioactive material, a tribute in its own perverse and vivid way to the very human ingenuity that has made Uranium City obsolete.

The peculiar tale of Uranium City and its present state of abandonment begins in a quite peculiar past. Uranium City's legacy is one of precious metals, including the eponymous rock that made it a geopolitical power spot, one of the world's biggest suppliers of fuel for nuclear warheads and reactors. It's said that in the early thirties, a Canadian prospector named F. J. Alcock stepped ashore on the land that is now Uranium City. He had a Geiger counter in hand, but he hardly needed it. Before his feet were rocks snaked with long, black veins of uranium. In an effort to keep any finds secret from competitive prospectors, Alcock had agreed that if he found uranium he would send a message to his partners in the south: "Today, shot an elephant." The one he sent read: "Today, shot a whole herd of elephants."

A small community gradually grew up around the ore deposit in the same way that communities grow up around lakes and rivers. And in the forties, after the uranium atom exploded in the form of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, people began flocking to Uranium City from all over the world, creating a rush bigger and more sustained than even the famous rush for gold in the Klondike. In black-and-white promotional photographs of the time, which show test bombs exploding in the New Mexico desert, one can still feel the confidence and innocence that suffused the uranium industry in its early days: Here was a new, safe, quiet way to wage war with no loss of American lives, as well as a clean, healthy, almost miraculous source of power. As one nuclear scientist put it, "There was once a day when uranium was very politically correct."

Given the spirit of the times, there wasn't a better place to be than Uranium City. A man could walk down Atom Avenue on his first day in Canada, and people would shout out job offers to him from passing trucks. Or, if he didn't want to work for one of the three main mining companies--Loredo, Eldorado, or Gunnar--he could just take a shovel and start digging, as many did, creating the tiny mom-and-pop mines that dotted the landscape.

By 1959, the year Prince Philip visited the boomtown, there were more than 5,000 people living in Uranium City. Six restaurants had sprung up, as had two barber shops, a two-lane bowling alley, a curling rink, a liquor store, two butcher shops, a billiard hall, and a theater. Thousands of tons of uranium came out of the ground through the sixties and seventies, but eventually Gunnar and Loredo exhausted their deposits, and all the miners were consolidated into Eldorado, which was operated by the Canadian government. The city's fate was now tied to the fortunes of a single mine, which by the early eighties was in deep financial trouble. On a cold December morning in 1981, Eldorado announced that it would close its doors. It was devastating news for the people of Uranium City.

"The people working at the mine didn't know the mine was in trouble," says Classen, the mayor. "The government had just spent millions of dollars on housing and renovations at the mine site. It appeared to those working there that Eldorado was planning to stay awhile. Then someone higher up suddenly saw that the mine wasn't making any money and decided to close."

Indeed, to attract workers to such an extreme northern clime, Eldorado had subsidized nearly everything in Uranium City. Rent for a three-bedroom house was $60 a month, employees received free heating fuel, and a plane was made available to them any time they chose to visit family members in the south.

When the mine closed, reactions varied. Some families immediately burned down their homes to collect insurance money. Those lots remain charred. Others have cement steps leading into thin air; the houses that once stood on them were floated on barges, at great cost, across Athabasca to places like Fort McMurray or Saskatoon. Some fell overboard and floated freely around the lake before sinking or freezing at various upended angles in the September ice. The hospital broke loose from its skids as it was being driven across the lake, fell through the weak ice, and floated among the floes for nearly a month. The weather reports each day included the location of a bobbing hospital.

But most homes had to be abandoned. Drifting through countless numbers of them on a radiant June morning, through old clothes and books, piles of bills and newspapers, the shifting debris of the early eighties, I find a 1981 Newsweek whose cover story discussed "the Fall of Carter." After further searching I unearth a Time from 1983, discussing the Cold War. At our lobster dinner Rod Dubnick had painted a grim portrait of those days. "They sent in psychiatrists to try to help," he said. "I watched the town go through all the stages of loss--denial, anger, grief, all that. Everybody said they wouldn't go, but then they had to." In the end 3,200 jobs were lost. Each employee was paid $9,000 to cover moving expenses and then let go.

Even as the people of Uranium City boarded up their homes, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau felt obligated to acknowledge the demise of one of the world's great uranium capitals. Offering strange, wistful consolation, he wrote, "There comes a sad and poignant everyone's life, when the realization strikes that earlier prospects have already been fulfilled, and the future is not so promising as it once was. At such a time, those facing this painful veracity must find the strength to accept it, for people are not gods, and sooner or later we must each acknowledge that our humanity puts constraints on the attainment of many of our aspirations."

And so Uranium City became a ghost town, decried by environmentalists as a symbol of what happens to a corrupt industry when it finally and inevitably falters. It was depicted as a scar on the landscape, one more place where humans had betrayed the earth out of greed. Surrounding Uranium City there is a constellation of sites where the mining companies abandoned their tons of radioactive waste, leaving it to flow across the land like dark, dangerous water, drifting toward the Arctic Ocean or rising through the food chain, creating, as the argument went, glow-in-the-dark fish, deer, humans.

For years Uranium City remained for me in that hazy, symbolic region, a northern netherworld with radon rising out of the ground and deformed vegetation growing through the cracks in the sidewalk. It wasn't until I went there that I discovered that if Uranium City is symbolic at all, it is a much more complicated symbol of an industry that is not dead, but rather thriving. Uranium City is a ghost town because it became more economical to manage the mines from a distance, to keep mining offices in the big southern cities and to fly miners in and out on seven-day rotations. Saskatchewan is still the world's leading producer of uranium, responsible for roughly $350 million per year in sales, with 80 percent of the product exported to countries like France, Japan, Germany, Korea, and the United States. Eldorado has fused with another government mining company and emerged with a different name, Cameco, and is presently operating new, richer mines in the area--so astonishingly rich, in fact, that some will have to be mined by robots and remote control because the risk of radiation exposure to humans is unusually high. The ore in the average uranium mine worldwide is 0.3 percent uranium, whereas the average deposit at nearby Cigar Lake is 7.5 percent uranium, the richest anywhere on the earth. The Canadian Shield is the gem of the nuclear industry, and Uranium City stands at its center like a silent, modern-day antimecca, built atop billions of dollars of rock, a power spot with no pilgrims.

It is a strange twilight when i first see Jim Price. I'm on a lonely late-night tour of the city, with my flashlight. I've just emerged from what might have been the ice-skating rink. Though it is sweltering outside, inside the building it's cold; there's a muffled whirring noise and a high hill of ice cascading down one wall. It seems that when a place is abandoned, it doesn't just fall down. It continues in its own way. A randomness sets in. One glimpses what ruins will be like in the future--not stately and lovely, but willful and odd and still functioning.

Price doesn't see me. He is heading down the city's main drag after a long day of prospecting. Often he and Dubnick spend hours in a plane, searching the earth below for hints of gold and uranium. You can't tell from watching Price that he is walking on wooden feet. Forty-one years ago his plane went down in a whiteout. There were three passengers aboard, whose lives he saved by walking four days through the snow for help. His frostbite was so severe that both feet had to be amputated. The crash has given Price a sort of heroic stature, which he wears uneasily. The word around town is that if you want to know anything about this region, you should talk to Jim Price. This is always accompanied by the statement that Jim Price never talks to outsiders, ever. So I don't even try tonight. I just watch him turn onto Fission Avenue. It seems enough to be allowed this glimpse of him, alone, making his way through these twentieth-century ruins towards home.

The next morning I tour the neighborhoods again. Perhaps the most interesting part of visiting Uranium City is trying to piece together someone's past life from what is left behind. In the first home, a Trivial Pursuit game is scattered through the front living room. I pass into the kitchen, stripped of its wiring and fixtures. A flowered curtain billows. Beyond the kitchen is a boy's bedroom; emblazoned on his door is his name, Dominic. The view from his room is to the east, where a small green mountain rises. There is a pair of battered Nike high-tops. There is a torn photo of a boy, possibly Dominic, who appears to be métis, of French and Indian descent. The photo lies near a copy of an open book in which there is an excerpt from St. Augustine. Dominic has underlined almost everything--a sign, surely, of great sincerity and curiosity: Then, with our affections burning still more strongly, we raised ourselves higher and step by step passed over all material things, even the heaven itself from which sun and moon and stars shine down upon the earth.

The next house has faux bricks meticulously painted on the front, and a picket fence. Sand has been piled in front of its door to protect it from looters, yet the roof has been hauled away. In the first two or three years after the exodus it was still considered looting to do this, to make off with your neighbor's garage door or roof, but now it is a widely accepted practice, something like recycling.

Every now and then, through these sunny, deserted, dusty neighborhoods, I come across a house with laundry flying or with lawn ornaments or flowers. The people who stayed on in Uranium City did not all move into the nicest neighborhoods, into the cedar houses with fireplaces and pools. They stayed in their own homes, scattered throughout the city, as if any day their neighbors might return. I see only one person all morning, an old man named Mr. Powder. His face is kind, dark, and tough as leather. He is of métis descent. He lifts his hand so slightly in greeting that I almost miss it. I ask him how many people live here. "Supposed to be 200," he says, "but I've never seen that many."

Later I catch up with Rod Dubnick outside his house. He is painting his canoe a light green color, like grass in the spring. Dubnick is given to quiet, almost Zenlike musings on things, and as we make our way to the town's one watering hole and restaurant, the Athabasca Inn, the subject of winning the lottery somehow comes up. "That'd be nice," Dubnick says, "but what would I do with my canoe?"

In almost every conversation we have, Dubnick raises this question, always at mysterious junctures. It seems to function for him as a sort of corrective for any wrong thinking, to protect from greed or the seduction of material things that would interfere with his understanding of the canoe. Indeed it is impossible in Uranium City, where you can buy a split-level house for a dollar and a can of Coke for $2.35, not to question the inherent value of any object.

The Athabasca Inn is a small, simple place, and there are three other people here, including our waitress. Those left in this town now work at another local hospital or one of two grocery stores. They pump gas or fix roads or land planes. Of the 100 or so people who still claim themselves employed, five work at the school (there are 87 children in town), one at the town hall, four in this restaurant. I am almost spooked when I hear a song that was wildly popular in Canada in 1982, the year of the exodus, its jangly pop chorus wafting like a theme into the sun and dust and emptiness: "We're here for a good time, not a long time, not a long time, not a long time." Dubnick tells me that at one time there was talk of the government burning Uranium City to the ground, since many of the buildings are fire hazards and some are dangerously decrepit. In fact, Uranium City itself turns out to be prime training ground for firefighters. Trainees are shipped in from hundreds of miles away. It may be the only city in the world where they can pick an insulated, furnished, two-story home and set it ablaze. But the consensus at the Athabasca Inn is that not even fire could completely destroy this town. There would remain strange metal and stone statues everywhere; there would still be a deep infrastructure, a maze of water and power lines. If Uranium City stands for anything at all, it is that once humans have touched a landscape, their fingerprints remain deeply embedded.

To descend into a uranium mine is thrilling, especially if it has a spiral road that corkscrews into the earth, as does this one, called Rabbit Lake. The deposit is actually beneath Lake Athabasca, so the road goes down and under. It is a long drive. By the time the truck rounds a corner into a large, bright cave teeming with people, I feel like I'm at the core of the earth. I'm reminded of medieval paintings delineating the various way stations of hell. This scene looks as labor-intensive as those, yet more cheerful and better lighted.

There is an easy, continual breeze from the elaborate ventilation system. The rocky walls appear at first glance to be black but are actually sweating and glistening with color, darkly and subtly, like the scales of a fish. There are people working Caterpillars and Jumbos and all sorts of machines with arms extending, circling. I am told not to step in the puddles of water on the floor, since this would release radon into the air.

Later, back in Uranium City, I meet a retired miner who coughs the whole time he speaks. He tells me it is getting more and more difficult for him to breathe as the days pass. Still, he loved it underground, he says. The work was exciting and physical. The best part about it, he says in a low, gravelly voice, was to set the dynamite in the mine wall and then stand back, eat your sandwich, and watch it go. He punctuates the memory by a hacking fit. At moments like this, it seems not that humans have exploited the earth, but rather that the earth has betrayed them.

Yet even to question the propriety of mining uranium in a place like Uranium City marks you as an outsider. Uranium is the idiom; you may ask how it is mined, but not why. When I do ask this question of a room full of people, down at the water base where floatplanes come and go, the woman who works there laughs. Margaret Belanger is in her sixties, and she raised a daughter in Uranium City. "Yeah, well," she says, "if this place were as radioactive as they say, we'd all be glowing in the dark." She says this with a particular swagger, one that I'd like to admire. It's with this same swagger that she tells me about the triumphant day in the early seventies when Greenpeace representatives, those who once labelled Saskatchewan "the root of the international trade in plutonium and uranium," tried to land in Uranium City. They were met by such hostility--shouting and even a stoning--that they got back on their plane and flew away. The memory of it makes everyone in the room laugh.

There is a painting by the Indian artist Len Long that shows a circle of people staring soberly at a round, glowing, flat rock. They could be staring at the Canadian Shield. It does not glow, of course, except in the imagination, but there are environmentalists who suggest that the question of what to do with this land is the most crucial dilemma facing the human race in our century. Is this huge rock a gift, is it a test, or is it, as so many have argued, the forbidden apple?

On a cool spring night earlier this year, a panel commissioned by the Canadian government traveled to Black Lake, a tiny Indian reservation near Uranium City, to ask these questions. The questions were not theoretical; this panel was making recommendations on whether or not three new mines should be allowed to operate in the area. The panel had been holding similar hearings all around Saskatchewan--attended by concerned citizens, scientists, activists, nuclear engineers, and mining executives--for a year.

In stark contrast to the wrecked but roomy homes of Uranium City, the tiny government houses of the Black Lake reservation stand on a hill overlooking a huge, sapphire lake. The man who once led these people is a Déné Indian named Senator Chicken. The tribe lives near land that's very rich in uranium, but because of the ambiguous and sometimes deceptive nature of the treaties that these Indians signed, they share in almost none of the land's wealth, nor have they seen their fortunes changed much as a result of Uranium City's boom years--even though one-tenth of the tribe's members work in the mines. It was this point that Senator Chicken, an elegant, wry old man, brought up at the hearings in March, after a feast of caribou. He stood and, in his native language, softly said to the mining executives, "We break the ground for you, we open it for you, but you take the blessing from it. The Creator made this land for all of us. He didn't give title of that land to anyone."

It was hard to believe that one of the mining executives wasn't being deliberately obtuse when he answered Senator Chicken. "Well," he said, "when I go to the Land Titles office, it says that title, both to the land and the mineral we're speaking of, rests in the provincial Crown."

Senator Chicken doesn't speak English, but he can understand it. He frowned politely and sat down.

During a break in the hearings at Black Lake, some from the tribe went outside for a cigarette. They started to talk about an accident a month earlier, when one of the mining company's planes went down. It had lifted just a few feet off the runway and then crashed into some nearby trees. Nobody was hurt, but the executives on board were very shaken as they crawled out of the wreck in their suits, dragging their briefcases behind them.

As they recounted this scene, the men laughed uproariously. One of them was still wiping away tears minutes later as he crushed out his cigarette with his foot and went back inside.

Three months after the hearing, I get the chance to talk to Chicken myself. When I arrive at the band office in Black Lake, I discover that my translator is sick, but he has made arrangements with his cousin, a man named Modest Big-Eye, to be his replacement. Big-Eye is raffishly good-looking, in his thirties maybe, with a long ponytail under a baseball cap. He wears a black leather vest. As we make our way through high yellow weeds to Senator Chicken's house, Big-Eye tells me to try not to irritate him. I agree, though I will be largely unsuccessful at this.

Senator Chicken lives in a house with corrugated metal siding covered with graffiti. He bows slightly and lets us in. Close up you can tell that he is 92: His face is deeply lined, grooved like a landscape. He is wearing a black anorak and moccasins with pink beads and fur around the ankles. The house is empty except for a wood stove and a couch and two chairs. Chicken's posture is regal.

Chicken, as loosely interpreted by Big-Eye, has a much bolder tongue, swears frequently, and now and then ignores my questions to ask things like, "Do you own a Camaro?"

At one point I ask if the government's relationship with this particular reservation has been fair over the years in regard to uranium mining. Chicken gives a long, mellifluous answer in the Déné language, his hands gripping some imaginary bars in the air between us. When he is finished, I turn to Big-Eye, expectant. Big-Eye tips back in his seat, runs his tongue along his upper teeth, looks at me and says, "Nope." After a long pause he says, "That was a stupid question."

Back in Uranium City, Rod Dubnick is walking through the woods along the periphery of an abandoned mine site. He comes upon a clearing where there are tall piles of long, thin stone cores. They are beautiful, marbled with color.

To discover the shape and placement of uranium deposits, a mining company will first drill into the earth with a metal tube whose mouth is lined with diamonds and pull out long cores of granite. The information from these cores is used to make models of what it looks like beneath the earth, three-dimensional maps on paper or on computer. The most spectacular of this sort of model is found at the Rabbit Lake mine, owned by Cameco. It is made of 50 or so vertical, translucent plastic rods of various colors representing the different minerals that actually exist in the earth under our feet. Looking at the model, it's impossible not to feel a start, a thrill of realization that the earth is happening like this beneath us, that it is not black but full of color, its groundwater rushing and carrying arsenic and sulfur, its quicksilver flowing, its gold meandering farther and farther away from the mother lode in long, starry tendrils, and then uranium, the heaviest natural element of all, lying on the bottom in long, thick networks, carrying on its endless atomic transformations.

Each of the rods that Dubnick picks up is lovelier, more colorful than the last. Dubnick is a resourceful man, and for years he's been trying to dream up something to make with all these pieces of the earth. Lately he's been thinking about chess sets. It's an excellent idea, really, all those pawns aswirl with nickel and silicon, shot through with thin veins of radioactivity.

Next he takes me to another waste site. I am scared by these sites, but somewhat obsessed; it's something like picking a scab. We go barreling through the countryside, every turn revealing another heart-stopping scene, another glittering lake embedded in rock. Suddenly, in the midst of this exploding landscape--waterfalls, fluttering trees, craggy hills--we round a bend and arrive at a gray, flat plain where one of the mines released its tailings in the early seventies. No vegetation has returned, except for a low stand of blackened, deformed trees surrounding a contaminated pond. The tailings were covered with a yard of earth, which at the time was thought to be enough to suppress the radiation. But the land has heaved over the years, and the tailings have risen to the surface in whitish whorls and little ugly boils. The site looks almost exactly like a huge human fingerprint. And these fingerprints are everywhere over the earth, wherever sandstone and granite meet to form uranium--deep in the Congo, in Australia and Namibia and the United States.

The temptation, of course, standing in a radioactive field, is to blame human greed and corruption. But the truth remains that at the birth of the uranium industry, nobody, not even the mining companies, guessed that the characteristic that makes a uranium atom suitable for splitting, and thus so useful to humans, is the same characteristic that allows it to do such insidious and invisible damage. What scientists didn't completely understand in the early days was that the particles a uranium atom throws off would tear through the human body as well, splitting any cells that they touched, creating carcinogenic chain reactions.

It's impossible to account statistically for the damage done in the innocent days before any of this was known. Radioactivity is odorless, tasteless, invisible, and it sneaked up on humans. One minute the earth was under our feet, and the next it had sprung into our bodies.

On my last day in Uranium City, I go for a jog down Nuclear Avenue. There is perhaps no better street for jogging in North America. I run in and out of people's homes. I even find one that I consider buying--a split-level with a fireplace and a pool. I spend an hour inside, lying on the living room floor, reading a stack of the National Enquirer from 1982. The roof has been pulled off, so that sunlight falls in slats across the carpet, casting a fine, bright light on the early eighties.

Over on Uranium Road is Candu High School, named after Canada's famous line of nuclear reactors. It was just four years old when Uranium City folded, and it is the most vandalized building in town. I jog over broken glass to the library, where there are books literally covering the floor, piles of them. Every window has been shattered. In the hallways, toilets lie upturned, their roots flailing. In the home ec room somebody has hammered all the stoves, and in the chemistry lab all the sinks are gone, and there are plumes of twisted wires sticking out of the floor every few feet. Littered throughout the whole building, first floor and second, are broken hockey sticks. This is Canada, after all, where everyone knows that if you're going to beat the hell out of a high school, you should use a hockey stick.

Finally I stop for a rest at the Baptist church. Confetti from a recent wedding is embedded in the gravel. I dig in it for a moment, and when I look up there is a little girl standing in the yard next door, staring at me. I don't know how old she is, only that she is at that stage when children's bodies are so restless and pliable that they are constantly draping or winding themselves about objects in a sort of languid boredom while they listen to adults speak. At the start of our conversation she is twisted around a small tree, and by the end she is practically lying on top of an abandoned washing machine that sits in the weeds beside the road. She answers questions about her family, about school. She is generous with her opinions. But when I ask her if she likes living in Uranium City, she furrows her brow. What kind of question is that, she appears to be thinking. I consider telling her how strange her hometown is. Here she lives, in the heart of the Canadian Shield, jewels flowing under her feet. All over the world people desire this land, but she is one of the few people actually left standing on it.

We look at each other. In the distance I can hear Price's plane trolling the skies. I know Dubnick is up there, too. The little girl sighs. A breeze lifts off Lake Athabasca and travels through the neighborhood, opening and then closing several doors. She has decided not to answer my question, but she raises her eyebrows spookily as the doors slam, and I can tell that her answer is "of course."

Rebecca Lee writes for The Atlantic and is presently at work on a collection of short stories.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!