Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pinawa's unlikely rebirth

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PINAWA -- The little town of Pinawa celebrates its 50th birthday this summer -- an unusual milestone for a place that was actually born in 1903, died in the 1950s, and reincarnated down the road in 1963. But then Pinawa is an unusual little town.

Not many communities of 1,444 boast their own public swimming pool and beachfront, marina, rowing and sailing club, tennis courts, softball pitch and one of the province's top 18-hole golf courses. In the winter, there's hockey, curling, figure skating and more than 40 kilometres of groomed cross-country ski trails winding through the boreal forest, alongside frozen waterways, up and down the Precambrian Shield.

A community this small would consider itself lucky to have its hospital, schools, community centre and shopping mall. Pinawa offers year-round recreation in some of the prettiest real estate in the country.

Pinawa Mayor Blair Skinner said he came for a summer job in 1980, and "I'm still here," calling the move "the best fluke of my life."

Plans for the big 5-0 July 20 got a boost last month when world-renowned Lund Boats announced it would bring its fifth annual Lund Mania fishing tournament to Canada for the first time. So now on top of the day's fireworks, music and parade, there's a whole lot of walleye fishing. Top three fishers win Lund boats, engines and trailers.

Former and current residents alike can hardly wait for the party. (The local news headline? Pinawa lands a big one for its celebrations.)

The town's unusual claim to two birthdays and only one funeral so far is a powerful tale of, well, power.

Pinawa was first built in 1903 as the province's first big power project, the Pinawa Dam, 110 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg at what is now the northwest tip of Whiteshell Provincial Park. But the old Pinawa petered out after a bigger hydro-electric station was built downstream at Seven Sisters. In 1963, when Atomic Energy of Canada Limited came shopping for a nuclear-research facility site, they picked a place less than 10 kilometres from the old dam, designed a perfect little town for its workers, with all the amenities, and called it Pinawa.

Pinawa.2 flourished in the '70s and 80s, with the feds employing some 900 people in its heyday. AECL also built a controversial $40-million underground research laboratory there in 1985 to see whether nuclear waste could be safely stored under the Canadian Shield.

When it decided to decommission the facility in 1995, and then closed the underground lab in 2010, many thought that was the end of Pinawa. Again.

Only this time, the town didn't die.

Four hundred townsfolk still work at AECL, according to Skinner. Apparently, cleaning up a radioactive research facility takes decades (one might not want to rush the job). Some former workers chose to stay and create home-based businesses. And healthy retirees began flocking to Pinawa for its lifestyle -- at least, until U.S. real estate prices took a dive and made hot spots like Arizona and Florida cheaper.

Skinner knows they need to diversify their economy and bring in young families. Pinawa has lost about 50 people since the 2007 census. Its facilities are aging and so is its population.

That's another unusual fact about Pinawa: Its average age is almost 54. Those who move for the lifestyle tend to stick around, said Elaine Greenfield, president of the Whiteshell Cross Country Ski Club. "Lots of people have grown old in town."

The former Realtor has her own reasons for admiring Pinawa. It was designed to desegregate the rich and the poor, with big and little houses built together on its streets. "And all the waterfront is public land," she said. "You can walk, swim, bike along it. That's a very unusual concept."

Pinawa's motto is Live, Work and Play. And play they do.

The average 54-year-old Pinawanian could probably outskate or ski the average 44-year-old Winnipegger. It's an active population, with a particularly enthusiastic old-timers' hockey league. Unusual Pinawa fact No. 5, if you're keeping track: More Pinawa residents (12.7 per cent) walk or cycle to work than the average Manitoban (8.9), according to a StatsCan database compiled by

Even the mayor has taken up cross-country skiing. Kind of.

Asked to open up a new warming hut last year on the 10-kilometre Orange Trail, Skinner had too much pride to allow him to accept a snowmobile ride to the ribbon-cutting. Instead, he dug up some skis of his own and he and his wife practised on the undulating Pinawa golf course trail before making the trek out to the woods. It was a start.

Skinner is still practising and claims to enjoy the sport despite a recent thrill on a hill. "I was going down, and I could see I just wasn't going to make this corner at the end," he confessed. "So I reached out and grabbed onto the softest-looking tree I could find to stop from falling... My son said, 'So, dad, I guess that officially makes you a tree-hugger.' "

A tree-hugging mayor in a town built on radioactive research. Only in Pinawa.

Margo Goodhand is the former editor of the

Winnipeg Free Press. She is working on a history

of the women's shelter movement in Canada.

--Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2013 A9

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