Desperate to get out exploring, Nancy Drew and I drove to a far-flung western neighbourhood for an evening of draining.
I'd previously explored a branch of the major drain in the area, but hadn't been able to explore the entire line due to a dropshaft blocking the way; so we started the evening with a bit of scouting. In the light of the setting sun, we walked around the residential community searching for manholes that would allow us down into the unexplored portions of the deep trunk line. We trudged through a couple frozen fields of snow, and located several likely candidates. However, the manhole lids were the grip of winter, and were frozen solidly into their collars. Even my manhole popper proved useless, and we were left standing in the cold wishing we'd brought along a pickaxe.
After an hour of searching with no success, frozen toes and lagging spirits prodded us into deciding to settle for revisiting the main line I'd already explored. I knew of two entrances into the line, and assumed it would be easy going. We initially tried to enter through a connecting culvert, but the way was blocked by ice dams that filled the pipe within inches of the ceiling. We drove to the next, and only, remaining known entrance.
Located in a secluded area, the manhole cover was unmistakable, even if the surrounding landscape wasn't quite as I remembered. I wasn't able to lift off the cover with just my fingers, but with a single heave my manhole popper proved its worth as I slid the cover off to one side. The long black drop into the frozen ground was open to us; and under the blanket of the night we geared up and carefully climbed down. I pulled the manhole cover back into its collar on my way down, the heavy metal emitting a loud clang as it sealed us in. Having popped out at this location a couple times before, I had no doubts I'd be able to to it again when we were ready to leave.
We descended the long ladder, and stepped into the water in the pipe at the bottom. The warm, humid air briefly fogged my glasses, and I stripped off the hat and wool gloves I'd been wearing, stashing them in my backpack. The drain was mostly as I remembered it- 1950mm and round, except for the ceiling which was flat in the center. A few inches of relatively clear water flowed peacefully around our booted feet.
With Nancy Drew in the lead, we set off upstream. After the cold searching topside, we were happy to finally be strolling around the warm underground. The section of pipe we were walking through, although part of a large drain network, is not very long. Situated between two impassible dropshafts, there is only one manhole entrance along the line, and it was the one we'd just used.
Pouring water roared from up ahead as we approached a dropshaft. Getting closer, we spotted the droplets of water bouncing off the sloped bottom of a concrete shaft. Walking into the dropshaft, I shielded my eyes from the falling water and looked up in search of the pipe above. Midway up the shaft, the rectangular opening dropped water over our heads. A step-iron ladder on the wall to my right climbed far up to a distant manhole, but allowed no access into the upstream pipe.
We turned around, and went a short way back downstream to where a small sidepipe joined the main trunk. This sidepipe is the doorway to the interesting little collection of pipes that Dogboy had dubbed Crabcake Surprise. Nancy Drew went up first, and I followed her into the 1200 pipe. We crouched along for 30m before reaching a manhole shaft, where we climbed halfway up then crossed into another backbreaker. Here was a comfortable little area to sit around, made of small pipes and tagged with small bits of graffiti from previous explorers. This was also the junction where the culvert (which we'd attempted to enter 45 minutes earlier) connected to the drain system. I crawled down into the tiny entrance pipe for a look, but immediately turned back after spotting the ice dam that blocked the distant reaches.
Crabcake Surprise is a nice place to chill, with relatively comfortable seating and fresh air. With our lights off, we sat around in the pitch black talking for a while, listening to the echoes of our voices up and down the confines of the pipe. I shot a few photos, and we then we headed back to the main trunk line, ready to make an exit.
We walked back down the main pipe to our manhole exit; where I climbed up to the top, Nancy Drew close behind me on the ladder. Confident that the manhole would be easy to pop because we'd just had it open, I was disappointed when after a little shove, the cover didn't budge. Settling in, I pushed harder- and it still didn't move. I stared up, and took a good look at the frost that ringed the inside of the manhole and its collar. A sick realization set into my stomach, and I breathed out a quiet "Oh, shit." Pushing harder didn't help, and neither did using a different position on the ladder rungs. I looked down at Nancy Drew climbing up the ladder toward me, and with frustration showing in my voice, said "We've got a problem."
I tried every trick I could think of to loosen the manhole lid, which had frozen back into place. Using my back to pop the lid didn't work, and banging on it with my heavy flashlight had no effect. After a few more minutes of trying to push the frozen cover while standing at the top of the shaft, I was breathing heavily and the cover hadn't moved at all.
Frustrated, I let Nancy Drew know that we'd have to climb back down and re-think our plans. We descended, and after I explained the situation to her, we decided to head upstream to try and find an alternate exit. Turning around abruptly, I clumsily gouged my head on a metal bolt protruding from the ceiling. With a bloody welt on my scalp, we charged back upstream in the 1950mm pipe. We climbed and crouched back into Crabcake Surprise; where I crawled down the tiny entrance pipe to see if I could squeeze over the ice dam. Lying on my stomach, crawling forward, I compressed myself between the ice and the cold concrete. Sadly, the ice sloped up to within inches of the ceiling, and there was no way I could fit down to the end.
Feeling very frustrated, I wiggled back down the pipe and joined Nancy Drew back in the Crabcake Surprise chill spot. Although this was the closest I'd ever come to being trapped in a drain, I wasn't worried. There were still other manholes to try, and if that didn't work, Nancy Drew had her cellphone.
Figuring our next best shot at escape was the manhole in the dropshaft room, we made good time getting back. I went straight to the ladder, and climbed up through the falling droplets of water to the manhole at the top. Four stories above the bottom of the shaft, I reached the manhole. I could see snow through the holes in the lid, and reached up with a gloved hand to give it a shove. With a tiny clunk that set my heart racing, the manhole shifted up. In my mind, I knew that we were as good as free. I braced myself in the collar, and pushed. Bits of snow and dirt fell around my head, and the cover broke open. I shoved, hard, and as chunks of snow rained down, I shifted the manhole lid to one side on the surface. I climbed out, emerging into the cool, bright night in the middle of a snow covered field.
I called back down into the darkness to let Nancy Drew know that we were free, and to climb up. The waterfall in the shaft drowned out our voices, but after some yelling back and forth, she started up. I stood out in the open, and brushed off the snow that covered the head and arms of my hoodie. Amid the sound of falling water echoing out of the manhole, I barely heard Nancy Drew's yell of "shit...my light just went out!..Redux?" Knowing that she'd been climbing the ladder, I grabbed my headlamp and dashed over to the hole. Shining my light down, I couldn't even see her through the humid cloud of water droplets that filled the dark air, but heard a "thanks" echo out of the dark. Soon, I could make out her climbing shape where the ladder disappeared into the dim, but then- "Oh shit, I'm getting dizzy, I gotta stop.." She clung to the ladder just ten meters from the surface, and I shouted down whatever encouragement I could think of. Looking a bit uncertain and wobbly, as though all her energy had suddenly evaporated, she climbed up the rest of the ladder one rung at a time. Mindful of her precarious position, clinging stories above an open, unforgiving concrete drop, I did my best to talk her up. And then her head came out of the manhole, and I grabbed onto her hand to haul her out, and she rolled onto the snow. I dragged the manhole lid back over the hole, and stomped it into place in the collar.
Under clear sky, we walked back through unfamiliar neighbourhoods in the moon's light to the car. Examining the adventure we'd just had, the fog of our discussion trailed behind us in cool night air.