by drainer-wannabe Ninjalicious
Meters below the busy streets above, a hidden concrete utopia snakes its way from the downtown core out beyond the suburbs. Concrete pipes conduct our urban stormwater to strange fringe areas known as forests, meadows, riverbanks and seashores — a gallery of horrors collectively known as nature. In these unholy "natural" areas, the ground is covered with neither cement nor asphalt, and rainwater is allowed to fall directly onto the ground and soak into the earth at its own pace.
3. The Great Ajax Drain
3. The Great Ajax Drain
Shortly after we resumed our travel upstream, we reached a junction room. Ahead of us lay two round tunnels. The one on the left was a fair bit larger, so we started there. We walked along for a fair while, peering down every little side tunnel. We had no idea where we were in relation to the world above.|
The grimy entrance to The Great Ajax Drain leads into a low-ceilinged rectangular section.
After a fairly long while of wandering, we came across a small waterfall where another large round tunnel emptied into our current tunnel, which I climbed up and investigated briefly. The new tunnel seemed to go on for quite a while, but Persephone wasn’t comfortable climbing up and it was too small to be really inviting. We continued to travel up the main tunnel for a while longer, but eventually the monotony started getting to us, so we headed back.
We voyaged back to the big junction room and ventured up the smaller of the two main tunnels. The water was a distinctly reddish-brown colour that we attributed to rust. As we went farther we noticed the water take on a chemical smell — we would’ve turned back if not for the tempting sound of rushing water ahead. Unfortunately, both the smell and the sound were explained by a large, steady stream of water pouring down from the roof just ahead — someone was emptying their pool. Since our path was blocked (and my neck was very sore), we decided to call it a day. On the way back, I noticed a fish swimming in the water, indicating that the water wasn’t completely poisonous, but we decided to hold out a little longer and get something tastier to drink once topside.
We emerged from the Great Ajax Drain more than two hours after we’d started, and I really don’t think we saw half of it.
4. Mr. Crab's Lair
5. Pipe Dream|
Our brief visit to Mr. Crab’s Lair was too brief to be satisfying, so we drove off to the northwest to check out some grates I had previously spotted in northern Scarborough. Exiting Persephone’s car, the three of us wandered the banks of the East Don, meticulously investigating each block of concrete we spotted. Unfortunately for us, it seemed that the Scarberians were rather uptight about defending the virtue of their drains. We found several different grates, but they were all tightly padlocked shut.
The abundance of graffiti along the walls of the drain’s first 20 meters made it clear that several other exploring parties had previously toured the massive drain, and a fresh set of wet paw prints indicated that something else had wandered through the grate fairly recently. These tracks — presumably left by a confused raccoon — went a long way in before disappearing. We saw more graffiti further along marking where past explorers had given up. I resolved to bring a marker next time, as well as a hat.
When we passed under our first manhole, it became clear that we were travelling about two storeys underground. After a long while of wandering up the drain, we began to suspect that this drain was huge in more ways than one, and since it was already getting fairly late, we decided to travel upstream at a forced march for the next half hour in the hope of finding something interesting. We quick-stepped up the drain for a half an hour, but failed to find anything thrilling within our self-imposed time limit, so we began the march back.
Most people probably have some trouble understanding the appeal of spending the night marching up and down a dark, wet cement tube -- at least until they try it for themselves. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect draining offers many of the same mind-expanding benefits as being in a sensory depravation tank. There are many things to sense in a drain, of course, like the wonderful smell, the steady, echoed slap-splash of explorers marching through the water in unison, and the sight of uniform concrete tubes stretching towards infinity in either direction. At one point Persephone asked Sean if he thought the drain was getting smaller, and he replied that either the drain was getting smaller or we were getting bigger. In such an unnatural environment, there was really no way for us to determine which was true, as there was nothing "real" we could look at to restore our natural sense of proportion. With nothing real to correct my mental processes, it was a simple mental trick for me to imagine that gravity had shifted and that we were walking on the ceiling, or marching straight down the pipe towards the centre of the earth.
We amused ourselves in other ways, too, like turning off the flashlights and marching in absolute darkness for long stretches. During one such spell of darkness, I jogged a long way ahead and then suddenly turned on the Maglite and sprinted back towards Sean and Persephone in my best imitation of a subway train. We attempted a sing-along for a bit ("drainin', drainin', drainin', keep that water drainin'..."), but found the ambient noise to be preferable.
When we eventually emerged from the drain back out into the outside world, it looked hyper real. It all seemed unnaturally large, and filled with far too many non-drain colours and non-drain noises. The ground felt much too dry, and we all remarked that it felt awkward walking on such flat ground without an echoey splashing sound to reward us each time we raised or lowered our feet. We were eager to return to the much cozier atmosphere offered by drains.
6. Metal Cave
Up three flights of ladders in the second section of Metal Cave, one finds some entertaining graffiti.
Aside from asking everyone I knew if they knew where I could find some nice drains, the most productive tactic for finding new drains seemed to be driving along riverbanks while keeping an eye out for the promising sight of a chain link fence atop a big chunk of concrete, a sight which almost always indicates drain action below.
Persephone and I discovered Limbo after an evening of such prowling. Limbo is so named not only because it is a place of lost souls, but also because of the bodily contortions its entrance requires. Only a couple of horizontal bars are missing from the gate to Limbo, and these are, unfortunately, the bars closest to the wet bottom of the drain. Limbo is definitely not a good place to get caught in a flood!
Persephone and I marched up Limbo’s main round tunnel for a long while, noting with appreciation that the drain had been constructed way back in 1964. As we walked, we wondered how the drain had come to be filled with large rocks, fallen electrical cables and broken bits of tree, and discussed what we’d do if we stumbled across a corpse. I figured it would depend how hungry I was.
Soon enough, we came to a junction room, where as usual we elected to explore the larger of the two branches first. Neither branch was tall enough to be enjoyable, however, so once we determined that nothing very interesting awaited us down either tunnel, we headed back and out.
I mentioned my drainquest to another acquaintance of mine, and she told me that she didn’t know much about that, but that when she was younger she and some friends had used a drain tunnel to cross under the 401 highway and railway lands that bisect Pickering. She couldn’t exactly remember where the tunnel was, but armed with her vague directions, Persephone and I headed out to the intersection of Fairport and Kingston Road to search for the lost shortcut.
We headed down into the valley beside the highway and quickly found two large, 2m by 2m cement tunnels where a small creek headed under the highway. Neither tunnel had any grate whatsoever, so we turned on our flashlights and headed in. Before long, we found a series of ladders leading three storeys up to the surface. I climbed up and realized I was right underneath a square grate set into the shoulder of the 401.
Persephone and I continued our underground journey for about 10 minutes before spotting light from streetlights pouring in through the drain’s exit up ahead. We were disappointed at first, but then noticed that our square drain simply let out into a tiny little outdoor pond before the creek continued its course through another, much larger drain.
The second half of Shortcut was even more interesting; it began as a very large metal pipe, the bottom half of which had been reinforced with concrete. The water ran through very deep and fast. Based on some of the huge rocks and tree branches we found further along, this drain must be a pretty scary place to be during a storm. We passed several side tunnels where large quantities of water poured in — most of these were grated, though we found one where the bars had been cut away. After 10 minutes or so, the concrete reinforcement at the bottom of the drain disappeared; then the metal pipe emptied out into a very tall concrete chamber before the drain resumed in the form of a rectangular concrete tunnel. With so many shape changes, I thought I’d died and gone to Melbourne. We followed this tunnel through various twists and turns for a while, until we spotted a big pond up ahead. The water poured out of our drain into a deep, wide pond somewhere in the wilds of south Pickering.
Such were my first eight successes in the draining world. I haven’t written much about all the heartache, but drain discovery involves a lot of research, luck and long nights. Some of my many failures included visits to small, dusty pipes under construction sites, locked drains, flooded drains, and one gorgeous but inaccessible monster of a drain — a 3.75m(!) round concrete pipe fenced in and firmly grated in Toronto’s Park Drive Reservation.
I’ll get in, another time.
This article originally appeared in Infiltration 11 (October 1998), together with an interview with FiL on draining down under and an article by Peter Sand about an expedition gone wrong under Minneapolis.