Shooting Our Way Back Home

   We circled Uranium City three times before landing, alternating two cameras between myself, David Segerts and Ole Gjerstad, a director and producer from Montreal. Dave, whose mother, stepfather and half-brother still lived in town, hadn’t been back in seven years and his face veered between elation and perplexity as he described seeing the town again. I’d been back three times since I moved south with my family in 1980, but I’d never seen the abandoned town in winter and I too was entranced. Snow covered the weed-filled yards and half-abandoned roads and the lines of rooftops and roads stretched gracefully across the hillside to the bottom of Cinch Lake, so that the town looked almost the same as it had a quarter century before when we flew in on the PWA jetliner. Only an entire neighborhood of foundation walls poking through the snow marked the desolation of what lay below.

   We’d come to shoot the beginning of what we hoped would be a feature documentary. I’d first had the idea in 1996. I’d already begun writing about the town but the combination of the spectacular countryside, kilometres of abandoned houses, and the story of the town’s rise and fall seemed to possess all the elements of a great documentary. I shot some footage of the town in 2000, then again at the 2002 reunion in Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan, then teamed up with Ole and brought in Ray Jones, an ex-schoolfriend who lived in Ottawa, and David, who was then also living in Ottawa. After more than a year of funding applications and treatment rewrites, we secured just enough development money from the CBC and a small Saskatchewan network to head north. 

Entrance to the Legion

   We arrived in late February, 2003. Weeks before it had been so mild that the lakes had not completely frozen over, but that had changed. At night the air was so frigid that the skin felt as if it was about to crack, and even in the daytime the temperature barely rose above -35 C. Yet it was good to see the town in winter – it’s natural season after all. Snow obscured the ruined houses, and dazzling sunlight reflected off the snow; at night the Northern Lights shimmered overhead like bands of phosphorous.

   We stayed on Fredette Road behind Ben MacIntyre that was still open. Our house had been reclaimed just a few years before and even after we’d fired up the wood stove and spread clothes and camera equipment on the couches, tables and beds, it still had a trace of the mildew smell that permeates all the empty houses in Uranium City.  For dinner we went to David’s mother’s house. Mary Seegerts lived with Dave’s stepdad Archie in a bungalow just up from what was the RCMP station. Mary worked as a cook for the mining and exploration camps up North and we ate well: stew, caribou, even salmon. After dinner Archie sat in the living room, playing guitar and singing in a melodious voice. He’d just come back from the Barrens where he and Lawrence Laroque had gone to hunt caribou. The herds hadn’t come south that year because of the changing climate and they’d travelled hundreds of miles by skidoo, following trails and open lakes, staying in shacks along the way or even out in the open air.

   If, on my last trip in 2000, townspeople had clung to their optimism, then by 2003, most people were resigned to the town’s fate. The hospital was due to close that summer, possibly taking the school and the last of the government services with it. Jim Price, the pilot who’d been in Uranium City since the ‘50’s, had moved south; Margaret Belanger, who’d been in town just as long, had left two weeks before we arrived; Danny and Rodney Augier had also left with their father James after their mother Luffy had passed away; Denise Bougie, whose store and restaurant in the old liquour store on Main street had been the centre of town life in 2000, was also in the south. The hotel foundations had been filled in and a skidoo trail ran through the middle of the foundations. The Holland Motel had finally closed up. The motel’s twenty-foot ariel had fallen across the blue picket fence into the road, and the minivan that had served as taxi and ambulance lay on one side, it’s front wheel torn off. Bill Holland sr. had moved south, survived a lung transplant, then passed away the year before. The Athabasca Inn had closed, as had the Bougie Diner up the street. The front door of the MacIntyre shoe store – the name still visible in outline across the front – had been pried open. Inside, we found a vault, it’s iron door gaping open, and a ten-foot icicle hanging from the ceiling like a dagger. Overhead, on Hospital Hill, the satellite dish and radio tower kept watch as they had since the 1970’s.

   In the abandoned town, a few more houses had collapsed or were on the verge of collapsing. Packs of wolves had been spotted in the town’s outer reaches, and came downtown at night, luring away dogs or grabbing them right out of the yards. Three foot berns, topped with red flags, had been placed at the bottom of both Nuclear Avenue and Uranium Road. Raiders had been coming in over the ice road under cover of night and dismantling entire houses, hauling away the lumber and any valuable fixtures, leaving piles of refuse behind in the foundations.

 Yet a part of the old town survived. The weekend we arrived a curling bonspiel had taken over the curling rink. People had come in from Camsell Portage and Fond-Du-Lac and the pick-up trucks and snowmobiles lined Uranium Road. All four rinks were in play – two men’s teams, two women’s – and the lobby upstairs was filled with kids and adults watching the game or taking a break between rounds to consume hot dogs, hamburgers and hot chocolate served in the lobby. Behind the rinks, on the hill leading to the Eldorado store, three teeangers were snowboarding down the hill onto a ramp they’d made out of boards and old tires.  Dave went curling with some friends from town while Ole and I filmed him and everyone else curling, then all three of us took turns filming the people in the lobby. With a hundred or more people coming and going from the rink it felt as if the old town had  sprung up from the abandonment and everyone seemed happy to be in each other’s company. “I think,” said Ole, “that this would have been the kind of town I would liked to live in for awhile.”

   A few people from the previous trip remained.

   Ilea Parkes ran the last remaining store, the wooden building next to what had been the post office. In my day it had been an arcade where we hung out playing Space Invaders or pinball, but now it was filled with dry goods, candy, and clothing with emblems like ‘Would the last one to leave Uranium City, Sask. please turn out the lights?’ Mrs. Parkes had been in the area since the 50’s, first at Gunnar where she and her husband Ray ran the comissary then in Uranium City where they ran, variously, the taxi stand, general store, and the motel. Mrs. Parkes was a spry woman in her sixties who opened and closed her store at the same time every day whether she had customers or not. Her goods weren’t cheap. A box of toilet paper and a bag of potatoes cost $15, and not surprisingly most people in town flew in their own groceries. She directed us to a small room off her store where she displayed her paintings. “I always wanted to be an artist,” she explained, “but I didn’t have the time until now.” Her watercolours showed talent and confidence. Most were of northern scenes – mineheads, wolves, ravens; the aurora borealis and the Gunnar town and mine. The best recalled the colours and dynamism of the Group of Seven. Her most interesting paintings were series of studies of branches and foilage which had the delicate simplicity of Japanese prints. 

   Andy and Clarice Schultz were a few steps closer to making a permanent move to their converted shed on the edge of downtown and their cabin out on Donaldson Lake. The shed had been converted into a comfortable home, with a picture window looking out on Nuclear Avenue, and a machine shop in the rear half of the building. A half-dozen vehicles, reclaimed from around the townsite, lined one length of the shed and various gutted vehicles, skidoos, engine blocks and anonymous parts filled a yard on the other.

   They’d come in by skidoo over Lake Athabasca, hauling up gear in big sleds. The winter had still been mild then and Clarice said she wouldn’t cross the Big Lake again by skidoo. “We had to circle around pools of water, jump a few pressure ridges. Only time I’ve ever been scared of the Big Lake.” We drank home-made stout with Clarice and Ian Kelley, who’d rented us our house, while Andy made dinner in the kitchen. Andy had the gourmet touch: even the macaroni and cheese he made that night tasted great. Ian was a Newfoundllander who’d come to Uranium City in the late 80’s where he married Jackie, a nurse at the hospital. He was very Irish-looking, with a round face and a light fringe of moustache, ad a bright Irish/ Newfie sense of humour. He too had worked at the hospital a few years but now he worked at Ekati, one of the huge diamond mines that are transforming the NWT – two weeks in, two weeks.

   After a long day shooting in the cold it was pleasant to sit in the warm kitchen drinking stout and wiating for dinner. Pinot Noir, Andy and Clarice’s Black Lab, sat curled in the corner near the stove. Outside, the temperature dropped below minus fourty as the town sank into darkness. I noticed that boxes of Preparation H had been stacked on the shelves, five and ten high.

   “Someone have a problem?”

   Clarice  laughed.

 “We read about them in a fishing magazine. Best lures around.”

    Later, we watched a video Ray had given Dave to show Andy and Clarice. The video was a compilation of footage shot in UC and area from the 1950’s on, ranging from a black and white BBC documentary, to brilliant 35 mm colour films processed by Rix Athabasca, Gunnar and Eldorado, to grainy CBC news clips from the early 80’s, showing the impact of the Eldorado announcement and some of the afternath. The BBC man interviewed everyone from Gus Hawker ‘The Famous’ in front of his store to native schoolchildren, teachers and miners who’d come from Ireland, Eastern Europe and across Canada. In the company films, the mineheads rose up against blue sky and virgin forest, and miners and their families waved from the newly-constructed bunkhouses as the music swelled up like the music in a Hollywood blockbuster. The CBC footage showed a more familiar town – vehicles pulling up to the parking lot of the hotel, the flourescent-lit spaces inside the Robinson drugstore, then the townspeople reacting to the December, 1981 announcement. Then, after the mine had closed, some familiar faces from high school, venting their frustration at the reporter from the bar of what became the Athabasca Inn.

   Driving back through downtown, I felt the echo of the town’s early days. I imagined what it must have been like to walk those midnight streets, carved only a few years before from rock and forest, part of a tide of hundreds of men and women pouring in from across Canada, Europe and the Americas to work in the mines which had sprung up around the town. I wondered how it had felt to look up and see the phospherescent Northern sky, to walk along the muddy streets past the Atomic Cafe or the old hotel, or to see the cold brilliant stars cast out over the dozens of white canvas tents huddled on the edge of downtown; to live in a place that had grown in just a few years from a few shacks along a caribou trail to a community of five thousand with movie theatres, three weekly newspapers, schools, churches, and stores. How luminous that sky must have seemed, how full of promise, and how far North. It must have felt like being in a town carved out of the surface of an alien   In my day, the mineheads still popped up across the landscape like the steeples of abandoned churches, reminders of the era that had been. All that remained now were the dozens of miles of roads, winding through the bush. But even in winter, with a little over a hundred people left in the town and the saplings taking over the few false-front buildings that had survived, an echo of that early promise hung about the greying boards, the false-front of what had been the Robinson drugstore, the yellow lamplight cutting through the gloom like a hermit’s lamp far out in the void.

   I’d chosen to work with Ole, a tough, energetic Norwegian, because he’d already made two films about the North – Amorak’s Song, and Kikkiik, both about Nunavut (as well as another couple of films about Africa), and I felt that he’d understand a community like Uranium City. We’d come up in February because we wanted to capture the town in winter, before the hospital closed. David, a few years older than me, had left town in the middle 70’s. He’d been back regularily until the middle 90’s, but Uranium City had been out of his thoughts for many years, as it had been out of mine until I came back in 1996. He’d lived in Edmonton, Vancouver, Ottawa and upstate New York, and worked in film, variously, as a cameraman, actor, producer, writer and director and was working on an account of growing up in Uranium City when I met him. Originally, we’d planned to shoot Dave shooting himself going back to his home town then have Ray – who had to stay behind at his Ottawa job at the time of the shoot – do the same at a later date. When we arrived in town we decided to put me in front of as well as behind the camera. My blonde hair and blue eyes and Dave’s long hair and Dene features, and our respetive histories in the town, made a good contrast on camera.

   We began in the New Town, the basin of cedar-pannelled houses and condos that would have fit well in a tonier area of Vancouver. Some of the houses at the edge of the hill had been undermined by underground streams, and had shifted off their foundations or collapsed into a jumble of beams, wallpaper, windows and staircases; others had been stripped down to a skeleton of wooden beams. In one second-floor apartment we found a mattress, two chairs, and several dressers and woman’s skirts, draped on hangars in a closet as if their owner expected to return later that day, but every other building was empty, as if they’d been abandoned before anyone had even moved in. 

   We filmed Dave in the teacherage and me in our old blue ranch house on North Saskatchewan Drive, Dave in the bleachers of the skating rink where the ice had been poured, Dave talking to relatives about his father, who’d died in a boating accident when Dave was seven, then at his father’s grave at the graveyard down Uranium Road. Finally, we ended up at Candu High.

Ole in Candu High

   The high school, for me, was always one of the hardest buildings to go into. I’d moved back the year before it was re-opened after a fire had destroyed the original building. I had good memories of the classes and the teachers, and especially my friends. I never found the same sense of community in any school down south – nor, for that matter, ever achieved the same grade average. I’d learned how to program computers, how to write (I wrote a whole novel, probably awful, my first year back in Uranium City), and played badminton, floor hockey and, especially, basketball, in the gymnasium, attended school dances, met my first girlfriend and made friends, some of whom I’ve stayed in touch with to this day.

    By the time Candu High re-opened in 1978, it was one of the best-equipped high schools in the North, with two full-size gymnasiums, film labs, computer rooms, Super-8 cameras, auto shop, carpentry and metal shops, science labs, home ec rooms with stoves and sewing machines, typing rooms and an inpressive library with a half-moon stage in the back. The school had been one of the last buildings in this part of town to lose power and water – the last class graduated in 1983, and the school itself remained functional until 1985, when it was still being used as an administrative centre.

    When I first came back in 96 and 97, boards still covered  the windows and the junction at the centre was pitch black; the air tasted stale and dead. The gymnasium floor had buckled from underground streams and heaved like the surface of the ocean, and the reinforced windows throughout the building had been smashed through.

   Going inside the school with two other people made it different. The boards had been ripped from the windows and enough light penetrated the junction to see the old scoreboard by the gymnasium entrance, the inside of the teacher’s lounge, and the stacks of books and comics in the teacher’s auxiliary. The art class upstairs – where once we’d attempted to mould vases and bowls on the pottery wheels and draw hands and faces from live models – was bare but for a layer of tiles and faded shopping catalogues on the floor. Outside, the distinctive prow of Beaverlodge Mountain was just visible through the jagged holes in the windows. We set up our cameras and Dave talked about how he and some of his friends had been hired in the middle 70’s to dig out the crawlspace beneath the original school. The first high school had burned down and in the rebuilding they’d discovered that waste rock from the mines had been used in the foundations. Dave and the others were given no protective gear, no warning even.

   Afterwards, we filmed each other going through the classrooms and discovered news clipping from 81 and 82, old excercise books and papers scrawled with notes left by the students. I beacme almost comfortable strolling through the empty school  but later when I had to come back on my own to pick up a forgotten lens cap, the cavernous school was just as intimidating as it had been before.

   Our next stop was the hospital. My mother had been a nurse at the hospital both times we lived in Uranium City, and we lived on Hospital Hill for a copule of months before we moved south in 1980. I don’t remember much about the hospital except that it was always very busy. By 2003, the space where our house had been was taken over by brush but the hospital itself, and much of the neighborhood behind it, looked remarkably similar to how it had looked in 1980. Given that the government had been threatening to close it since 82, it’s very presence was something of a miracle.

   Inside, the hospital was nearly empty. We interviewed one of the doctors, a big South African who had been in town nearly seven years. I’d seen him with his handsome wife and blonde, almost angelic-looking children, first at the bonspiel then at church. Despite his size, the doctor seemed a gentle man. Like many South African doctors, he’d immigrated to Canada by agreeing to spend time in a remote location but he genuinely liked the quiet and freedom of the North country, as well as the Northern people and said that he would be sorry to be leaving in the spring.

   Later, I interviewed Margaret Powder, a slender, pretty woman who worked as a nurse. We knew each other a bit in school, and she remembered me from my previous visits. She talked about how ghosts had been seen in the rooms and that one presence had been so persistent – the nurses thought it was the ghost of an old man who’d died in the hospital – that a medicine man had been called in set the spirit free. The medicine man must have done his job – no one had felt the presence since, though others had come and gone.   

   We talked about the sweatlodge that we’d both attended in the fall of 2000. There had been two seperate sweats, and I’d been invited to the second by Bill Holland jr and his Lorna, who was one of the Laroque’s. Bill and I had been the only white people. Another medicine man, Hector, had come up from Saskatoon on a tour of the Athabasca region, and a lodge had been built in Bobby Augier’s back yard,  just off downtown. On one side was a house half-eaten by a fire, on the other a house with broken windows half-hidden by yellow saplings. Margaret said that at the first sweat they had heard the cry of an eagle, then the flapping of the eagle’s wings as it flew out of the circle. No eagle appeared  in the second sweat, but the sound of chanted Cree in the darkness and the emotion that passed about the enclosed space, as burning sweetgrass hung in the heat, had been intense and somehow fitting in the context of Uranium City.

   The hospital staff was resigned to the closing and perhaps almost relieved that the date had finally been set. One nurse told us how, the summer before, she had used a broom to chase away a black bear that had tried to sneak in the back door. Outside, the hill sparkled in the sun and even the cinderblock hospital looked curiously beautiful. Dave and I followed the old footpath into Fredette Valley, still used by the kids going to Ben MacIntyre. At the bottom was the old wooden footbridge, and the creek, completely frozen over. Water gurgled under the ice, and the trees were dazzling white in the sun. It felt good to be back in this place that no ruin could touch, that would always be the same no matter what happened on either side.

   We interviewed a few more people, some who planned to leave with the hospital, some who, like Andy and Clarice, intended to stay as long as they could.

   Jim Pfapffenroth is a Baptist minister who has lived in Uranium City with his wife since 1986, when they came with the express purpose of saving souls. In this they have several antecedants, including Father Bern Brown, (who wrote a lively book describing his life in the North a few years ago, including several of his original paintings) who established the St. Barbara’s Catholic Church which still stands on the edge of the Ben MacIntyre schoolground. St. Barbara – patron saint of miners – is empty except for Christmas and Easter, when a priest flies in from Fond Du Lac or Stoney. In the meantime, parishioners go to Jim’s Baptist Mission.

   Jim hails from Missouri and has been both a farmer and a pilot. He still flies, bringing children from surrounding communities to the Beacon Bible Camp, on Ace Lake whithin view of the airport. Hundreds of kids, almost all native, fill the camp every summer and missionaries come up from the US to help build and run the camp. A few years ago Jim and another family took over some houses at the bottom of Fredette Road, bringing in their own windows and fixtures, and reclaimed their houses from abandonment.

   That morning Jim said prayers for those who were sick, and for those travelling the ice road. Jim’s wife played the organ and the congregation sang hymns then Jim gave his sermon, based on readings from the book of Job. “Life is unfair,” he declared, relating what Job had had to endure from God then cited as a personal example how his pipes had frozen the night before, leaving him and his family without power or water. We too had been woken up by an incredible gurgling in the sink and when Dave and I rushed downstairs, the main pipe was shaking as if possessed. Ian Kelley had come by and said the pump at the water plant had broken down. Our pipes were saved but it was a vivid reminder of how thin the line between man and nature in UC – if Jim could reclaim a house then his and all the other occupied houses could just as easily return to nature. Though he never said so directly, I felt that Jim’s sermon was in part directed at the fate of the town, so close to not existing with the hospital about to close.

    Later, Dean Classen showed us some photographs of Jim baptizing the newly-faithful in Ace Lake, in front of his camp. Jim was hip-deep in the water, and had a serious, amost profound look, as he dipped each baptisee’s head beneath the water, reflecting the strength and intensity of his belief. After the service, I asked him how long he planned to stay. “As long as there’s a few people here we’ll be here. We have our church and our camp. This congregation might be an indication of our future though. Many of our regular people have gone south this week. Usually we have twice as many as today.”

   Afterwards, we went to see Pat and Danny Murphy at their compound near Milliken Lake.

Danny and Pat Murphy

We found them in their winter house at the end of their wooded lot. When I first met Danny in 96, he wouldn’t even allow me to take his picture, but this time he needed no coaxing to let the cameras into his house. His winter house, like his summer house, has been constructed with beams, telephone poles, windows and lengths of wood from the mines and from town, and felt cozy with the wood stove and the light angling in through the slats over the living room windows. Pat, still recovering from knee surgery, sat in an easy chair in the living room. We filmed Danny in the bedroom on the second floor, which also doubled as a greenhouse. The smell of earth and vegetation filled the air; Danny said that in winter they got all their fresh vegetables from the greenhouse. Then, over tea, Danny related his days in Uranium City in the 70’s, when he’d moved from working at an auto plant in Windsor. “Party goin’ on all the time hey. Didn’t matter what time you got off your shift, you’d find somethin’ goin’ somewhere. Card games too, 24 hours a day.”

   On the way back, the poplar trees, heavy with snow, bent over each side of the road, so that it was like driving through a long, snowy cathedral. I remembered how different the country could be from that around Uranium City, darker and a little more wild, the hills more blunt, the caverns a little deeper. In the fall, when I’d last been here, the colours of the turning leaves had been spectacular, with the bronzes, yellows and reds one finds in Ontario or Quebec. In winter my father used to take us out skiiing in the hills around Beaverlodge Lake or up to the Lorado minehead, perched on top of a hill like a beacon to the surrounding area. Once we’d taken skidoos out to Gunnar, crossing Martin over to Cinch and then Milliken and I still remember racing down the abandoned Gunnar airstrip then watching the minehead and the mine buildings appear out of the bush like the ramparts of some lost city. My last fall in town the entire ninth grade had gone on a camping trip out to Goldfields. The Goldfields minehead had been torched by then, and the skeletal frame rose up (as it still does) like some a ruined church from the bedrock. We explored the townsite where foundations and street signs still poked from the tall grasses and nests of bush, then climbed Beaverlodge Mountain and looked out over the whole sweep of the Athabasca country, and at night we recounted ghost stories on a hillside overlooking Lake Athabasca. Ghost stories are legion in the area (as late as 2003, people had told me about seeing a solitary figure, dressed in a black coat and hat, standing on the skidoo trails around Goldfields. The figure always vanished before anyone could get close enough to see who it was) and one of the teachers scared the hell out of me by jumping out of the bushes when the stories were done.

   Continuing back to town, we drove through what had been the Lorado mill. The minehead and what had been the townsite – in period maps Lorado is listed as the fourth town in the area, besides Uranium City, Eldorado and Gunnar – were further up the road and they, like the mill, had been completely decomissioned. All that was left of the mill was a concrete arch and the tailings pond, cordoned off finally with a low wire fence and signs reading ‘Danger – Radioactive’.

   Pat and Danny said they’d seen gales of green and red dust blowing off the Lorado tailings field into the woods. The mill had been in operation just two years when it closed the first crash in ‘59, and the owners dumped a stew of sulphuric acid, radium, lead, and uranium into Nero Lake, effectively killing it. As late as 81, no one had any idea how toxic these fields were. Legend has it that in the early 60’s, Eldorado management played golf on the tailings field, and in my time pit parties were held in the shadow of the Lorado mill. The fine, rust-brown surface, and the complete absence of any vegetation, made the tailings field seems as exotic as the surface of Mars. I’d walked over Lorado and other fields at Gunnar and Port Radium many times as a kid, and though one would have to spend several weeks camped out on the edge of the field to really be in danger, this exposure sometimes worries me.

   We went down the Fredette Valley past the bridge. Dave and I talked about our seperate experiences coming down to the valley, and the waterfalls, to think, be still, to escape. The waterfall was frozen in a sheet of solid ice, as if the water had solidified all at once and the white of the falls looked beautiful against the black rock around it. Water burbled beneath the ice sheets and we taped the sound of the water with the mikes. Dave’s half-brother Wilfred had come down with us and he held the boom mike during interviews and took a crew shot of Dave, Ole and I together against the waterfall. I liked Wilfred – he was a quiet man, with an intense yet gentle air. He was descended on one side from Gus Hawker and lived off downtown with his wife and two children.

Wilfred and David

   After the shoot, we went back to Wilfred’s house where Wilfred and Dave went through a box of photographs. Baby pictures and paintings of wolves, eages and Jesus ministering to his flock covered the walls. Wilfred’s wife Sandra had baked muffins and the air was warm with a wood fire and the stove; Suzie Quatro’s ‘Tumblin’ In’ played in the background. Wilfred showed us a photograph of his wedding – Pastor Jim presided over Wilfred and Sandra kissing in front some coloured lights with Ace Lake in the background – then pictures of forest fires around town. “This is what we looked forward to in the summer,” Wilfred said. He showed me a picture of the purple-black smoke billowing over Fredette Road. “Fire only seven miles away that time. Any closer and we’d have been evacuated.

   I went inside only once after the hotel was abandoned. It was in the early morning. Heavy fog which cut off the surrounding hills from view so that it felt like the town was suspended in space. The hotel’s front door had been sealed shut, a giant ‘EH?’ spray-painted in yellow on fhe front, but the door to the bar was open. Inside the bar was dark but for a shaft of light from a window in the back, and the counter had been kicked over on it’s side. The heavy glass doors of the refigerator were still intact and inside I found a Carling Old Style box, the cardboard warped with age.

   Upstairs, the lobby looked much as it had in 1980, except that the windows were all boarded up, and a heavy chain sealed the front door. The front desk and the boxes for messages and keys were still intact, but inside the cafeteria, the circular counter seats, booths and even the counter had been removed, and at the back it was as dark as it had been at the centre of the high school. The hotel, while less menacing than the high school, felt more eerie, and I remembered people in town telling me that they didn’t like to go into the hotel because there were too many ghosts. Though I’d explored every other building in town, in the hotel I couldn’t go further than the lobby. With the boards on the windows, it felt entirely removed from the intersection outside, so that the grey light inside the high-ceilinged lobby seemed to belong to some other place, and it was with some relief that I stepped back into the cold outside.

   Our last visit was back up Hospital Hill to see Dean Classen. Dean lived in the Eldorado duplex he bought for a few hundred dollars after the mine closed. His Suburban was parked outside and his two youngest children were playing in the living room of his comfortable home, complete with carpets and good furniture; an echo of his parent’s old house which sat on top of Uranium Road.

   I’d been a frequent visitor to that house for a year or so when I was friends with Dean’s younger brother Brant. Before the Classens had moved up the hill, they’d owned our blue ranch house and built the extension that became the living room, complete with sunken fireplace, before they sold the property to SMDC who leased it to us. I remember Dean in the living room of his parent’s house, wearing a silver disco shirt and cranking up Kiss or April Wine on the stereo. Like many northern kids, the Classen boys spent most of their free time was spent out in the woods, hunting, fishing, trapping, or out at the family cabin. Brant had often taken me out on his trapline, or out hunting squirrels or rabbits, or on camping trips into the country. Once, when we were twelve or so, we skied out to his parent’s cabin with a couple of his cousins. I don’t remember where the cabin was now, but it took a full day of skiiing in thirty below weather. At the cabin, we fired up the sauna until it was blistering hot, then jumped outside into the snow when we needed to cool off.

   I met with Brant a few times in Vancouver, where he lives now.  Once, when Ray Jones and I were both in Vancouver, we met with Murray Petrashyn and Shawn Rasta – we’d all more or less known each other in high school – and went to a few bars around town. It was a memorable evening, not least because of an undercurrent of sadness, since we were all linked by a place that had disappeared.

   When the mine closed, Dean’s father lost the money he’d invested in his bulk fuel business and Dean took over what was left and runs the business to this day. That evening Dean had just drove in with his two youngest children over the ice road from the south, where his wife Gisele and their children were passing the winter. Ole, a grandfather himself, played with Dean’s kids on the couch, and Dean and I drank single malt whiskey and chatted. His parents live on Vancouver Island, a half-hour drive from where most of my family eventually settled. Dean wasn’t sure what would happen once the hospital closed. The Rare Earth mine was still a possibility, as was Goldfields, but no one really knew what to expect. Dean was quietly optimistic: the town had weathered so much in his time. As I sat there, I wondered what had kept him in town, long after his schoolfriends and family had left. Every year, he worked to keep the curling and skating rinks open, sat on town council, and helped to maintain the town’s infrastructure. He was an entrepaneur who could have done well in the south. I thought that he must really love the town to stay and devote so much to keeping it alive.

   Even in winter, Uranium City still felt like a town in motion. Pipers and Navajos flew in and out every day, engines cutting into the silence. A friend of Andy and Clarice’s drove in across the ice road, taking the long route down from Fort MacMurray, across Saskatchewan, then North again and dropped off a boat to use in the summer. A few days later Andy and Clarice boarded up their house and all three of them flew back to MacMurray with Pinot Noir. Paul Bougie flew in for a night, picked up his wife Dolly, who was pregnant, then took the ice road back south. Bill Holland jr and Alan Augier flew in a at seperate times from their shifts at the mine, and, the day after we left, James and Danny Augier drove in as well.

   We went down to the ice road the day before we left. The road is maintained three weeks a year and runs from Stoney across the narrows to Fond-Du-Lac, along the Athabasca’s north shore then crosses the Portage to Beaverlodge and joins the highway to the airport.

Dave on the Ice Road, truck in the distance

    The ice road – and the arrival of the barges in the summer – was part of Uranium City’s personality, for isolation defined it as much as anything else. Even in the old days, the only way in or out for most people besides the ice road was by air and the sound of the big jets screaming over town into the airport was part of daily life. Three years before they closed the mine, Eldorado bought their own DC-10, custom-made so that they could fit cargo in the back, and offered miners and their families free flights to Saskatoon. Up until 1990, the jetliners still stopped at the Eldorado airport, though they must have often stopped empty.

   I’d been out on the old ice road which ran from Bushell across Athabasca to the winter road on the south shore. My parents liked to drive out to the mouth of Black Bay where the surface stretched blue and white as far as the eye could see. Fissures rended the ice, plunging down into the icy blackness, and ice ridges ran across miles of frozen lake like a great icy moat. When the road was last open in February, 1982, it was as busy for a few weeks as a southern highway as the moving trucks rumbled North and townspeople streamed south, sometimes abandoning boats and even vehicles on the side of the road when they proved too heavy to tow.  

    A red light still blinks from the tower overlooking what was Eldorado, but of the ranch-houses, duplexes, bunkhouses and sprawling rec centre which made up the town, and the machine yards, mill, mineheads and offices that made up the mine, nothing was left but a single tin shed and a few roads laid out in a grid. The handsome cedar-beamed lodge where I’d stayed in 2000, still sat on the edge of the townsite. Harold Gravesley, who runs the lodge, was Eldorado’s only permanent resident.

   We circled through the plateaus that made up what was left of the mine, then walked down to the lake. Three fifteen foot signs stood a ways off the shore, announcing the ice road and cautioning drivers that they took the road at their own risk. Two vehicles crept toward us from the south shore, and as they crept closer we saw that the lead vehicle was an oil tanker. We walked out to the signs and waited. Dave said that the ice was six or seven feet thick, and though this was apparently thicker than the legal limit, it seemed absurdly fragile with an oil tanker bearing down. All around the magnificent tableau of snow and ice shone dazzling white in the sun. The hills around the lake were dusted with snow, as serene as a network of extinct volcanoes. I filmed the truck as it approached across the lake, steady at eight km/hr to keep behind the waves it generated in the ice. When it was almost upon us, I could hear the tire chains clanking on the ice, and couldn’t quite shake the image of the cab and it’s heavy load breaking through six feet of ice, and three of us scrambling ahead of the cracks with freezing water spraying up between the ice floes. I felt the ice shifting beneath my feet, rippling with the weight of the truck’s wheels like hard putty rippling out from a weight at it’s centre. The trucker waved as he passed then shifted gears and his truck angled up the grade which seperated lake from land and disappeared into the bush that  covers the Eldorado townsite.

   After this promising start, our film never got made. 2003 was not a great year for documentary film in Canada. We had funding approved once, then twice, then taken away again. Ole’s wife got sick and I was beset by numerous personal troubles. Dave moved to Vancouver (where he works now as a youth guidance counselor). Ray is still in Ottawa. One day, whenever I can raise some more money, I’ll revive the film.

   In the meantime, the town lives on. The hospital closed, as predicted, in the summer of 2003. Ray Jones went back with James O’Reilly that year and filmed the auctioning off of the hospital’s leftover furniture and equipment. Ian Kelley and his family and many other hospital staff left shortly thereafter but Andy and Clarice have made a permanent move to their converted shed on the edge of downtown, hauling up an incredible 10,000 pounds of goods from their old home in Fort MacMurray, most of it by charter airplane. Dean Classen is still in town, sitting on town council.

   The Rare Earth mine at Hoidas Lake appears close to becoming reality. Dean’s partner, Kevin Lowadoski is so sure of the mine he wants to run a road from the minesite into town. Exploration crews are moving back in. With uranium prices up, the land around Uranium City is in demand again. “Lotta strangers in town,” Says Clarice, “Lookin’ in through our window.” Encana, one of the biggest gas producers in North America, has inherited Lorado mines as part of a larger deal and are looking at ways of cleaning up the tailings pond which is leaching acid into Beaverlodge through Nero. Clean-up at Gunnar is also in it’s beginning stages.

   Jim Papfenroth remains, running the Bible Camp and Baptist Church, as does Margaret Powder, who works at the nursing station which replaced the hospital. Wilfred and Sandra remain, with their children. The arenas are opened each winter, and bonspiels still held at the curling rink. The population, officially 86, swells in the summer months as families and old-timers like Archie and Mary Segerts retrun, and people come up from the US to help Jim run the Bible Camp. Several lodges still operate in the area – FishHook Bay, out on Beaverlodge, ‘Luffy’s Lodge’ on Lake Athabasca run by James Augier and named in memory of his deceased wife, and a smaller lodge run by JJ Bougie. Ben MacIntyre is still open, with seven students.

   Ole left after a week, taking the cameras, but Dave and I decided to stay for another weekend. It was a relief to be free of the cameras. Shooting in the cold had been exhausting, and for Dave it had been a painful, if exhilirating week.

   An electrical fire broke out at Margaret Powder’s house and she and her husband Wayne and their two children had to rush out of their house to a neighbor’s in the middle of the night. The fire was stopped before it spread, but two walls of the children’s bedroom had to be demolished. Dave, Wilfred and Wayne spent the weekend rebuilding the walls, and everyone in town helped out  – Jim came by with a box of pizza, presumably from down south. I spent the last day walking  through the town. I wasn’t sure what would happen with our film, or the town, and I wanted to see as much of the town as I could in case I never came back again.

Abandoned vehicles, downtown

   The temperature had risen to an almost tolerable minus 20. I walked down Uranium Road to the neighborhood beyond Candu High. By mid-afternoon, the sun was beginning it’s descent towards the hills behind town, and two km of empty houses spread out along the hill. As I passed the high school a big dog bounded up behind me, so big and running so fast that at first I thought it was a wolf – but it was just a big friendly dog that wanted to explore the town awhile. In a garage off the main road was an old Ford Fairlane, left behind during the exodus of 1982, and in one of the houses along Uranium Road I found a 1960 Saturday Evening Post, which I later traded to Dave for a copy of the 1980 Candu yearbook. The dog and I climbed the steps of one of the Eldorado houses which bordered the playground of what had been Gilchrist School. The school had been burned down a couple of years before, and the swings and jungle jim and the concrete pad that had been the foundation were all that remained, covered now with snow. From the house’s second story I could look out over the whole southern half of the town. The snow-covered rooftops lay draped about the hillside like a woman’s body, coming to rest at the edge of the forest. Tall spruce jutted up behind the hill and behind the spruce lay the white surface of Martin Lake, then the crest of the lovely hill which surrounds the southern edge of the lake. But for the empty windows staring blankly from the snow, it might have been an Alpine Village in BC, or the Alps. As the sun dipped closer towards the horizon, the snow turned a brilliant blue in the shadows, and the houses were streaked with pink, gold and yellow, reminding me how beautiful Uranium City had once been, how beautiful it could still be if one knew how to look. I walked back up Uranium Road and down to our old house at the bottom of North Saskatchewan. The dog ran ahead of me, veering into the bushes then running back periodically to check if I was still there. As I stood amidst our house, I felt the past come alive all around me, as if the ghosts I’d felt on other trips had returned now that I was alone. Our house, and the other houses along the street, seemed to accrete their missing parts and stood whole all aroud me. I saw the streetlamps glowing along the street, the neighbor’s window, glowing yellow where moments before there had been only space and heard my mother’s voice from a back room, muffled by the radio burbling in the corner and the carpeted floor. I saw my friend Bentley and his sister Sylvia coming up the bend from Nuclear Avenue, wolf-whistling through their teeth to tell me it was time to walk up to school. I saw the edge of the apartment tower – no more than a few foundations now – staring down from it’s perch on the top of the hill. Out the back windows were the neighbor’s houses on the street below – the Bougies, still more or less intact by the foot of the skihill, the Piesenger’s machine shop, the Schillings, the Hasslen’s at the end of the street, the house of the —– girl next door then, towards downtown, the Dixon’s, the Augier’s, the Turner’s; Bentley and Sylvia’s. I heard the Twin Otters droning overhead and the sound of their engines echoing up behind the hill as they decelerated into the MASL base on Martin Lake, and saw the girls who came over to take care of my three younger brothers and sisters when my parents flew south, playing Blondie, the Knack, and Pat Benetar in the living room.

   The last of the sun ebbed from the street, and the houses turned dark. The dog came inside, paws crunching on the mouldering tiles then left as suddenly as it had appeared, trotting down the steps and disappearing up Nuclear Avenue. Cold right through, I followed soon after, walking up Nuclear past the empty or ruined houses that had become as familiar to me on my trips back as they had been when I lived there. The Augier’s old house, roofless now, hauled over the Big Lake from Gunnar in the late 70’s on the back of a flatbed truck. Bentley and Syliva’s house, reduced to a pile of beams and shingles, the ‘KISS – Rock n Roll Over’ sticker still visible on what had been Bentley’s bedroom wall. I’d grown curiously comfortable with these empty places now, and when I reached the ice bern which seperated abandoned from living town, I paused for one last look, almost sad to leave my old neighborhood behind.

   That evening Ian Kelley came by and we went for a ride. I’d run into him earlier that afternoon when he was taking advantage of the relatively warmth to bring his little girl out for a skidoo ride. He’d been wearing a beautiful red coat with beaded gloves. Now he said he liked to drive around town at night: “Never see a soul – you feel like you’re completely alone in the world. Like you’re living in Dodge.” Outside, a quarter moon  cast silver beams across the snow and the town was completely empty.

    I got Ian to drop me off at the edge of downtown, where Wayne Augier lived. I hadn’t seen Wayne all week, and I wanted to say hello and give my regards to Danny and James who were due anytime. The house was dark and no one answered when I knocked, so I walked back down Uranium Road. The curling rink was closed and the street and all the buildings in it were dark. The two-story teacherage loomed menacingly at the end of the street, it’s smashed windows burning blackly outward. I realized that if everyone left after the hospital closed, the whole town might look like this and for a moment the empty town seemed truly sinister. A popping sound erupted from the metal roof of the skating rink, as if ghosts inhabited the darkened space inside and were making their presence known. I hurried my pace, anxious to reach the heart of the occupied town.

   I noticed a light burning from the doorway of the skating rink. I went inside and found the three teenagers I’d filmed snowboarding on the hill playing pick-up hockey at the far end of the rink. The popping I’d heard had been the slap of the puck against the boards.They skated over and we chatted a moment until, my feet and hands turning numb from the cold, I went back outside.

   I felt the same rush of assocations that I had in my old house and one evening in particular came back to me. I’d been at a party at the top of the hill with all my friends from school and what seemed like half the town and even the miners from the Eldorado bunkhouses. After the party shut down, everyone filed along Uranium Road in a big procession, going to the hotel or another house party. I’d met a girl at the party and we were walking together in the middle of the procession. It was very cold, and a light snow drifted through the beam of the streetlamps. The girl was beautiful, with teardrop eyes and long brown hair and I and many other boys had been admiring her from a distance. I felt, for the first time in my life, that I’d been allowed into the adult world, instead of just observing it as I had at the hotel.

   We all remember the first time we fell in love, don’t we? Nearly a quarter century later I could still see the people in the procession and the yellow windows along the road, and the girl’s face beside me. I could hear the music and the buzz of voices from the door of the Zoo bar, and so the faces milling around in front of the hotel, breath steaming into the cold night air, and the red tail-lights of the taxis on their way out to Eldorado, and the bang of the hotel door as people streamed up and down the concrete steps that led to the lobby.

   I knew that no matter the success or failure of our film, no matter if every building was abandoned and the downtown became as dark and cold as the rest of the town beyond the hill, I could still return to whatever was left of this stretch of Uranium Road and that moment would come alive, again and again.

   In the meantime, this spirited town, so cruelly treated by fate, persists, like Job, on faith and it’s own curious energy.

2 thoughts on “Shooting Our Way Back Home

  1. Hi, I really enjoyed this! i used to fly for Norcanair there for couple years, left in 80 or 81. Now retired, I sometimes get the urge to go back up for a week or so, just to relive old memories. It is now 2024 and am wondering whether anyone is there and about a place to stay etc. I’d love to bring a bicycle. Anyway, loved your memories, you really were part of that community. If you have any advice let me know, cheers! Darrel (Luke)

    1. Hi Darrel (Luke),

      Thanks for the message. I wonder if we ever flew with you. My father worked for SMDC in the late ’70s, perhaps you flew him. We lived at the Norcanair base way back in the ’60s, left then moved back to town in the ’70s.

      I need to update with a piece about going back last fall. There are places to stay, though not many. When I was there my old school friend John brought a foldable bicycle and toured the back roads – though be warned even the main roads are pretty rough and will be hard on a conventional bike. And depending on where you live, you’ll have to figure in the cost. From Saskatoon (or elsewhere in Saskatchewan) you can take Rise Air, but they’re (really) not cheap, especially with a bike. Another way to get there is through a charter from Fort MacMurray, which will basically be the same price if you’re more than one person, and allows you to bring up a lot more freight. I’ll have to ask a few locals and write something up.

      One thing you’ll have to adjust to is – that piece was 20 years ago, and almost every feature I wrote about then has disappeared. The hospital is gone, and both the skating and curling rinks are gone (one collapsed, the other caught fire after a lightning strike), and most of the neighborhoods have been swallowed by the bush – with only the foundations and a lot of junk (nails!!) left behind.

      But people have stayed behind. Happy hour is now in the junk yard behind the old SMDC shed that Andy has converted into his compound. There’s a store with not bad prices. You can still get out in the country, go fishing, what have you. People are friendly. I’ll try and get an update up soon.



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