Life in a Mining Town

The really wonderful thing about resources are the people who live and work within the mining industry. Mining is as much a vocation and way of life as it is a job, and one will see familiar faces in other communities where the conversation may go something like this: ?Haven?t seen you for a while – weren?t you in Pine Point? (or Cassier, or Uranium City). The response is likely to be sure, I work here now. My town closed, busted, ores gone, economic climate changed or one of the many myriad ills that can befall those who follow mining?s boom and bust cycle. Miners understand that the ore will someday run out, or that world economics may not support the resource that they are working in, or it may fall from favour, for example the blue asbestos that was mined in Cassier. Still, miners are a resilient lot and they will pack up their families and move on to the next opportunity.

I had never seen a mine or met a miner until I left Winnipeg in 1974 and landed in a DC9 on a remote strip of ground in northern Saskatchewan. It was my first introduction into a world that I did not know existed. My husband thought the overalls and hard hat that I wore to work, taking the mine bus, was hilarious, commenting for weeks on my lack of business suits and high heels.

It was also my introduction into a new language with terms like ?the face? CPS count, hard rock, pitchblend stringers and the like.

Mining can be a dangerous and dirty business, and not all budding miners reach the age of retirement. We had a joke in UC that there were retired miners, experienced miners, but no old stupid miners. In Uranium City the radiation count was so high that women applying at the mill who were of child bearing age were turned down for employment for that reason alone. The incident of babies born in distress was higher than the national average, and there were often black notices on the store bulletin board announcing the death of a worker from some form of cancer.

The company built 35 new homes on Hospital Hill and when they were completed all of us who were anxiously waiting to get into our new (and luxurious) quarters were told that we could not move in. The Atomic Energy Board had condemned every house as unfit because of high radiation levels, and posted warning/danger notices on every new house door. The problem it seemed was in the basements. The contractors had of course excavated the rock to build the basements and neglected to test for radon. After many months an apparent compromise was reached. Families could move into the new homes but were told not to smoke and to keep their bathroom fans running 24/7. Naturally very few people complied with the fan advice, and in the bad old ?70?s, almost everyone smoked. Of course we all ignored the fact that the main street of town was muskeg and in the 30?s the company had used thousands of tons of ore waste for fill for the road. Even today a Geiger counter would light up like a Christmas tree if one had one in hand while strolling down that road. Radiation levels were so high there that botanists came up from Ottawa every year to study the vegetation along Lake Athabasca. Radiation has mutated the plants until they bear no resemblance to the flora and fauna that grown elsewhere.

Uranium City had about 35 miles of road and thousands of miles of bush which made it a paradise for hikers.

It was perfectly possible to fly to Saskatoon, 500 miles by air, in the morning, do some shopping, have lunch with your friends, and take the company plane back to Uranium City in the afternoon, arriving home just in time to make dinner. It was a somewhat surreal experience to travel 1000 miles for a bit of shopping and lunch and to experience a 40 or 50 degree temperature change in just a few hours. It could be 40 in Uranium City and in the high ?80?s in Saskatoon.

Food in that community was shipped in by barge through Fort McMurray and Fort Chippiywan. Traditionally the first barge in after spring breakup (usually sometime in June) was the beer barge. The local liquor store usually sold out of beer just after Christmas, and by June there would be very little left on the local shelves.

The town has been torn down, the head frame is gone, and in the tradition of mining, the town has been reclaimed by the wilderness.

Living there was a wonderful experience for me, and I still have an enormous admiration and respect for the men and women who choose mining as a career.