Radioactive and Here to Stay
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
“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
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
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 time…in everyone’s life, when the realization strikes that earlier prospects have already been fulfilled, and the future
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
Rebecca Lee writes for The Atlantic and is presently at work on a collection of short stories.