Standing a few feet above river water, a cold breeze chilled me as I looked up from the base of a huge concrete jaw. A steeply sloped concrete flume, enclosed by tall walls, lead to a pair of outfalls above. Feeling the weight of the loaded backpack on my shoulders, I scurried quickly up the incline, my shoes gripping the rough surface. I could smell the dual outfalls just after I caught sight of them. Divided by a concrete wall and covered by large black rubber mats, the pair looked slightly similar; but ten feet closer and the differences began to show. The outfall on the left, my intended target, was surrounded by relatively clean concrete and was obviously the friendlier of the two. The outfall on the right was surrounded by strange green growths, and its black rubber curtains billowed amid the sewage-flavoured steam belching forth. I shook my head, and supressed a shudder while walking through the cloud of foul air. I reached the black mats guarding the opening to the left outfall, and with a grin on my face slipped into the dark beyond.
It has been just over four years since my first trip into this drain. That initial foray, undertaken one brisk fall evening, was part of my introduction to the sewers beneath Edmonton's streets. Equipped with a flashlight or two, a borrowed camera and combat boots, I had managed to explore the drain and return safely to the surface. I enthusiastically wrote up the night's adventure; the newest addition to a burgeoning website. Now, as a seasoned explorer, I had returned to relive the experience and attempt to procure superior photos.
Just inside the black, curtain-like rubber mats, the pipe continued uphill several meters before leveling off. Setting my backpack down on the dry concrete floor, I dug out my headlamp and had a quick peek around to re-familiarize myself with the drain. Keeping my gloves on to guard against the chilly air, I set up the camera and took some photos of the entrance areas. I knew that by the time I'd finished exploring and came back to this spot, it would be nearly dark outside.
After taking several dozen photos, I put on my uberboots, and stepped down into the sewer, ready for adventure. The clear water flowing down from the darkness ahead never reaches the actual outfall; instead it is diverted below a concrete lip into a deeper pipe where it joins the sanitary system. Only during times of heavy flow (such as a thunderstorm) does the water pool high enough to wash over the lip and out into the river. The light grey sludge coating the bottom of the pipe under the shallow water and the slight odour of sewage hanging in the air were clues as to why this diversion is in place.
At first, I did my best to keep out of the water, and walked along the edges of the stream; but after 100m I gave up and just walked as close to the left edge as I could. My motivation for staying out of the channel wasn't the water itself but rather the decomposing black muck, coated by a film of grey slime, at the bottom. My footsteps stirred up dark clouds of the sediment, which rose to the surface and released a noxious smell as they floated downstream.
The drain was about 3m in diameter, and ran in a fairly straight line as far as my flashlight could illuminate. The walls, made of aged and often chipped concrete, were featureless except for the brown mineral formations which began to increase in number as I walked further upstream. Eventually, a faint roaring sound I'd heard from the outfall grew to an audible presence, filling the pipe with the white noise of a waterfall. Eager to reach the end, I gingerly walked over large sandbars of gravel and debris, all coated by the unsettling grey slime. The brown and orange coloured mineral formations seeping down the curved walls became so thick in places that the tunnel nearly took on the appearance of a cave.
Nearing the end of the drain, the noise from the waterfall grew louder. The bottom of the pipe changed shape; from a rounded invert to a squared-off flat channel, about 1.5m across. The flat floor was quite slippery, and my steps left distinct boot prints in the thin layer of grey slime as I walked. Then, enveloped by its droning roar, I spied the dead-end of the waterfall shaft ahead. Water splattered down in a scattered stream from a square opening in the ceiling of a little house-shaped alcove that was the end of the pipe. The alcove itself was not much to look at; three walls enclosed a small open space underneath a peaked roof of sorts; the concrete bearing the rough lines of the wooden forms.
I spent a while at the waterfall, trying to compose a photo or two amid the noise and foul air. After having tried several angles and lighting sequences, and deciding that I'd captured at least one decent image, I packed up my camera and turned to go. The walk out became a quick march as I strode quickly downstream. My intent was to move faster than the putrid air that was stirred by my steps from the black mud, and reach the fresh air of the outfall as fast as possible. Water churned and splashed up against my boots, the rivulets leaving behind tiny bits of black sediment, and I did my best to keep stray droplets away from my face. The fast hike back took about 12 minutes, and the effort was rewarded as I detected the fresher, cooler air close to the outfall. Daylight had since faded away, but the crisp night's drafts were invigorating and most welcome.
Back in the dry outfall, I replaced my boots with shoes and carefully re-packed my gear. Clicking off my headlamp, I walked the final steps in darkness, then slipped past the black rubber curtains into the young night. Standing at the top of the concrete flume, I took a moment to gaze up at the deep purple sky over the distant hill, before setting off for home.