Cover of Patricia Sandberg's Sun Dogs and Yellowcake

Sun Dogs and Yellowcake, Extract from Chapter 8: 

The lucky and the not-so-lucky

By Patricia Sandberg

The only road out of Gunnar led to the airport. If you did not fly out, the only other options were to traverse the lake in a boat after breakup or drive the winter road. Driving the winter road simply meant you drove down the boat ramp out onto the ice, turned right to go through St. Mary’s Channel, turned right again once you passed Crackingstone Point, and followed the shoreline until you reached Bushell Bay, where you could get back onto land. All travel on the lake had its risks, and much of the excitement and many of the stories from Gunnar relate to these watery exploits.

My father Jack built three boats while he lived in Gunnar. The first was a small open boat with a kicker. The second, a bit larger, had a canopy and an inboard motor that was forever breaking down and which only one man (not Jack) knew how to repair. Jack and his friend Willis Robbins decided to test this new boat by travelling to Waterways—in September. This month always brought the first winter storms, and as the pair motored into open water, they ran into one. They passed a tug that had sought shelter, continuing until, as they rounded an island, a maelstrom of wind and bucking waves hit them. Realizing they were in trouble, they retreated to the island and threw down an anchor. They tossed the gas tanks towards shore and then rowed to the rocky beach in the small dinghy they had been towing behind. Swirling sand turned the air dense and brown. Through the night, the wind screamed, and waves boiled at the anchor until it gave way. Jack watched as his beloved boat was pounded to pieces on the rocky shore.

Radium Miner in Athabasca River

Radium Miner towing Jack and Gord into Athabasca River

Planes and tugs searched for days for the missing men without success. When the storm finally died down, Jack and Willis, realizing they would not be rescued, climbed back into the small boat and rowed their long way through the islands back to Gunnar, arriving a week after their departure.

My mother Barb and Willis’s wife Vera were at a friend’s house when the men arrived back in camp. A fellow from the local radio station rushed over to interview the women. Vera told him, “Barb was a brick, kept us all calm.” Then he asked Barb, “So when did you start to worry?” And Barb replied, “I began to worry last April when he started to build the boat.”

The next boat that Jack built had a cabin and two outboard motors—no inboard engine. This at least was one lesson he had learned. The second lesson he was about to repeat.

Gordon Braund: I did a trip across the lake to Waterways with Jack in his nineteen-foot cabin cruiser, his last boat. It had been stormy earlier in the day but let up a bit, so we headed out into the big lake from Gunnar at around four in the afternoon. That was pretty late in the day to be setting out, and we really shouldn’t have gone out at all. We passed Beartooth Island, which is right in the middle of the lake, near to where the Clearwater tug had gone down with a loss of all hands some years earlier. The weather kept getting worse. It was by now night, and the wind was howling and rain driving into our faces, so we turned around and pulled into a little cove on the island. We hauled the boat up on the shore. It was crashing against the rocks, so we cut some brush to cushion the hull and started to wait out the storm.

When we heard the horn of a tug around three in the morning, we took off to try to catch up to it. We thought if we didn’t, we might be stranded for who knows how long. Conditions were still ugly, and we had to keep pumping the gas tanks to keep the gas flowing as there was a leak in the system. We came up on the leeward side of the tug, and they signalled to us to go back of the barge, where there was a calm trough we could ride in. We pulled in behind the barge, and Jack announced he was going to jump up onto it. The back end was about twenty feet above us and I said, “How the hell are you going to do that?!”

(Story continues)

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