With a crowbar in my backpack, I trudged through the snow towards a manhole cover. I had rubber boots on my feet, and was eager to get underground and out of the cold. Nancy Drew and I had just spent the past hour looking for an elusive sewer outfall on the banks of the river; and as the sun was beginning to set we finally found it, half-submerged in ice and hidden by bushes. Tracing the path of the sewer above ground, we managed to locate several manholes that were frozen shut, and had returned to the car to pick up a few supplies.
The crowbar proved its worth, as the frozen seal of ice cracked and the manhole lid shifted open. With some careful wiggling we managed to pry the lid up and grab it, and I hauled it out of its collar. Slightly warm air could be felt rising out of the exposed black hole, and we quickly descended the stepiron ladder into the drain.
Fitting my headlamp over my toque, I turned on the slightly dim 3LED lamp and looked around. In the pale blue light, I could see we were in a large round concrete pipe (RCP), which was exactly 84" diameter according to the manufacturer's stencilled marking. Over a hundred meters away, I could see a faint half-circle of light that was the ice-plugged river outfall, and a faint breeze of cool air washed down the pipe. I turned and walked into the darkness upstream, Nancy Drew following close behind.
We walked for several hundred meters through sections of identical 84" RCP, passing through a couple small manhole rooms. In one chamber, the path was suddenly blocked by a large blue PVC pipe running horizontally across the room. Two small sidepipes opened on either side; one of these leading into a tiny chamber where some re-routing of the lines had obviously taken place. Here, it was revealed that the PVC pipe was some sort of diversion line. After taking turns sitting on the blue pipe and taking some amusing photos, we continued walking.
Upstream the sound of a waterfall could be heard, and grew louder as we approached. Soon we entered a chamber where a stream of water was spewing from a smaller RCP. Climbing inside this pipe, we trekked uphill through the fast-flowing water. The pipe entered a tiny manhole chamber, then curved sharply to the left, and had a steep slope to it. The water rushed past my feet very quickly, throwing up a spray with each step I took. I decided to straddle the stream and hobble along the edges to avoid getting soaked, Nancy Drew following suit.
With some effort we reached the top of the slide, coming into a chamber with nice concrete ledges that looked good for sitting on either side. Ahead of us the pipe became a nice 84" size once again, and we were happy to walk right in. About ten minutes later we entered the first real junction chamber of the drain where our choices of route were an identical pipe to the right and a 72" diameter pipes straight ahead. Following the straight line seemed the best idea, so we stepped into the pipe and carried on.
Not far after the junction, we entered a chamber with a small waterfall on the left side. The water was pouring out through a large rectangular opening in a metal wall; beyond which was a small water-filled space the size of a closet. After some discussion, Nancy Drew and I agreed that it was probably a sort of drain valve for some nearby stormwater pond.
We trudged through the pipe, turning right, and then left, and then curving back and forth; I lost track of our direction of travel. Several manhole chambers later the pipe shrank to 60" diameter, which was a size we decided wasn't worth following so we turned back. As we were walking back through the curves and a turn, I spotted a small object ahead. As we got closer the object began to move away from us, and I could just barely make out the outline of a small creature. Deciding to get a closer look, I suddenly broke into a run and quickly caught up with a small fleeing muskrat! I chased it into a manhole chamber, and it scurried into a small PVC pipe to hide. After several bad attempts to photograph it, we left the muskrat alone and kept walking downstream.
I stopped to take some photos along the way back, and was up above the level of the drain in the waterfall chamber when I heard a squeak out of Nancy Drew. The little muskrat had come out of his hidey-hole and had wandered towards us, and as I watched from above he went downstream and out of sight. After packing up my gear, we also went downstream and soon spotted the little muskrat just before the junction chamber.
He was perched on the edge of the pipe, searching about, seemingly unwilling to make the one foot jump into the junction chamber. After sniffing around and looking at the small drop, he turned and retreated up the pipe towards us. He came up to me and briefly climbed onto one of my boots, then went up to Nancy Drew (who has a fear of muskrats) and freaked her out before continuing on his way upstream. I wondered aloud if the muskrat was somehow trapped in the drain, but it seemed in good health. I shot some photos of the junction room, and we decided to make a quick foray into the 84" line that went off to the south.
A dozen meters in, the line shrank to 72", and our flashlights showed nothing but identical tunnel straight ahead. We walked just over a hundred meters and came to a small manhole chamber where, high above, a raised grated inlet let in some cold fresh air. I climbed up the ladder for a look out, but couldn't see any landmarks aside from the fenced-in back yards of a quiet residential subdivision. I went back down to where Nancy Drew was waiting, and we discussed our options. The unexplored RCP ahead seemed very long, straight and boring, and we had already been underground for longer than we'd planned, so we decided to turn back.
We returned downstream, through manhole chambers and back to the top of the slide. A quick posed photo and the loss of one flash gel later, we started down the steeply sloped pipe and burst into the chamber at the bottom. We walked quickly back downstream after this, reaching the manhole in short time. Beginning to feel slightly chilled, we made our exit, crawling out of the manhole into a clear, cold night. The sound of our footsteps crunching in the snow echoed across the field as we strode back to the car.