Five minutes after finally locating the correct manhole, my toes were near freezing, and I'd almost dislocated both my middle fingers in an effort to lift the lid. Nancy Drew and I crouched in the middle of the field, staring at the heavy metal cover set flush in the ground. We'd just spent fifteen minutes criss-crossing up and down the grassy valley in the dark, searching for this particular manhole, guided only by my vague memory that "it's around here somewhere". Our toes grew colder and the wind began to bite through our jackets on this late November night, and we were nearly ready to give up when I finally spotted the dark, circular shape in the dead grass. Fortunately there was no snow on the ground yet, otherwise I would never have seen it.
Now the problem was getting the manhole open. We were without a crowbar, and the City had bolted three of the four holes in the lid. Repeated attempts to lift the lid using only one finger had no results; the heavy cover teased us by rising only enough to bolster flagging hopes before dropping back down.
A desperate search of our bags and the surrounding area for tools of some kind led to the construction of a makeshift manhole popper; and with a strong pull, the lid slid open. Warm sewer air rose up from the tantalizing depths, and we hurried to put on rubber boots and climb down.
I dragged the manhole lid shut overhead, and descended the ladder to where Nancy Drew waited in the drain below. There was an immediately noticeable temperature difference between the drain and the surface, and I was glad to be in the warm underground. The pipe was large, about 2400mm diameter, with a flat ceiling and a bottom filled with a heavy layer of sediment. We ventured downstream, feet stepping through inches of watery muck.
Shortly, we came into a junction, emerging from the pipe onto a curving ledge that dumped into a large room. This area is known as Guestbook Junction, due to the faint graffiti left on the walls by workers in the 1980s. A huge 3600dia pipe yawned open at the far end of the chamber, and the upstream portal was a 4m tall oval shape. I jumped down off the ledge and had a look around at the somewhat familiar space. I'd been here with Dogboy in the spring of 2003, and together we'd explored the 3600 pipe, afterwards named To The End Of The World. Back then, at the end of an already long drain trip, I ventured up the large oval for just five minutes before deciding to leave it for another day.
Tonight, reaching the end of the large oval was my goal. The pipe sections stretched ahead as far as my lights could reach, and we ventured in. The water rushed past my thigh-high uberboots, and I realized that I'd worn these same boots the last time I'd explored this drain. Now with a couple patched holes, I hoped they would endure this second visit.
The drain curved back and forth very slightly, never quite following a straight line, and the huge concrete sections were stained and worn down. Each piece of pipe was a large oval- close to 4m tall, and 2.4m wide. Filled with water during a thunderstorm, it would be a fearsome sight.
We walked and walked, sloshing through water that alternated from mid-boot to ankle deep. A clump of large white mushrooms was sighted growing in a large crevice between pipe sections. Several sidepipes dumped into the main line, but each of these was high overhead and near impossible to climb into. The lack of exits was disturbing; one manhole shaft was simply a hole in the ceiling with no ladder. After nearly a half-hour of walking, my right foot began to feel slightly damp. Sure enough, the glue I'd used to patch a hole was coming apart. Resigned to a wet foot, I continued on.
Dim shapes coalesced in the darkness ahead, and we soon walked into a large junction room. A pair of smaller oval pipes, divided by a wall, went left and right. Each pipe was labeled in large spraypainted letters, "North North" and "West West". A rusty metal ladder bolted to the wall lead up into a small manhole shaft. I got busy shooting photos as we discussed an exit plan. Research had informed me that both of the oval pipes went for kilometers, and I didn't feel like walking much further because I knew my boot would quickly fill with cold drain water. That left the possible manhole exit.
I decided to head up the shaft and pop the lid to determine where we were. Cautiously, I climbed the narrow rusty ladder to the top of the room, where it entered a very tiny manhole shaft. The shaft, about 1m in diameter, had small rungs spaced far apart and was a very tight squeeze with a backpack on. I managed to wriggle up to the top, and entered a newly-installed manhole shaft. There was a small ledge that allowed me to rest and put down my backpack as I readied to pop the manhole. Making sure not to look up, I pushed against the lid. A shower of dirt fell over my head, and with some manoevering, I slid the cover up and out. Cool night air rushed in with a few more clouds of dirt, and I cautiously peeked out. I was in the middle of a dirt parking lot in what looked to be a junkyard of some sort. Wary of guard dogs, I whistled a few times and waited, watching the shadows before climbing out. After a quick look around, I went back down the manhole to inform Nancy Drew (waiting down in the junction room) of the situation. Exiting here would mean jumping some high fences and a cold walk back to the car; so I decided to close up the manhole and go back down the drain.
The warm trek back down the drain was not without a disadvantage: The small leak in my right boot worked itself into a sizeable hole, and began to let in copious amounts of cold water. My thick wool sock worked like a sponge, and soon my toes were swimming. Twenty minutes later when we re-entered the main junction room, I was glad we we'd chosen not to follow the other branches. I took a few minutes to shoot more photos, and then we headed up to our exit manhole.
Popping out into the clear night, the air was cold and refreshing. Sitting down on a nearby walking path, I pulled off my waterlogged boot and soaked sock, and quickly changed into the dry pair I had in my bag. The night's trip had been short but rewarding, and we sped off for home.