Two years ago, I stood at the bottom of a dropshaft, shielding my face from plummeting water droplets. I could just make out the large, dark rectangular opening of a pipe high overhead. I knew that until I stood looking down from inside that high portal, I would remain unsatisfied.
Exploring the drain's mysterious upper reaches remained an elusive goal for a long time. There was no way in, easy or otherwise, to be found. The dropshaft had a ladder, but it was far enough away from the opening to only allow tantalizing glimpses of the drain that lay beyond reach. Recently, Nancy Drew and I had done a scouting mission to find a way in, but the only manholes that weren't buried under snow were frozen solid.
Spring arrived slowly. Under warm sunlight, the snow melts and runs off, and the manhole collars loosen their grip on the lids once again. I left the house in the morning, and took a bus across the city. A short time later, I was walking around the neighbourhood, tracing the path of the sewer below, and guessing at manholes. Along the sewer's path, I managed to locate a few possible entrances, but it took some time to find one that was isolated enough to pop without attracting attention. I sat down on the grass and geared up, pulling on boots and gloves, stashing my headlamp in a pocket for easy access.
I was sitting next to a pair of manholes, and had a 50/50 chance of picking storm over sanitary sewer. I couldn't smell the difference, and couldn't see down inside. So, taking my chances, I popped a lid and went in. Immediately, I noticed the small pipe diameter- and the flow of shit at the bottom- SAN, get out! The neighbouring manhole was much friendlier, and the pipe much larger and cleaner. I dropped into the darkness, and dragged the cover shut overhead.
I felt strangely at home surrounded by backbreaker RCP, and I didn't even wait for my eyes to adjust before starting a fast trek down the line. The small pipe quickly joined up with some 1650, which was much easier on the back and allowed for faster walking. I kept a fast pace, heading downstream, eager to find a route to the top of the waterfall. The bland, featureless walls rolled by, and I idly mused that most RCP storm sewers could use a little decoration.
I could hear the spattering sound of falling water ahead, and felt the excitement that only comes from exploring a new drain. Rounding a bend, I stopped short on the doorstep of the junction that had opened up in front of me. The 1650 pipe I was standing in dumped into a large oval pipe that went off into the distance. On the right, another large RCP also dropped into the junction. I carefully stepped out of the 1650 into the junction, and after a quick peek into the neighbouring 1800, I followed the water flowing downstream.
The oval pipe was about 3m tall and 2m wide; a shape that makes for easy walking and fast-flowing water. I walked for 15 minutes before my ears finally caught the faint roar of a waterfall in the distance. The pipe curved gently to the right, and the sound quickly grew. I charged ahead, slowling only as I approached a rusty safety chain strung across the pipe. The old chain was corroded, covered in clingy garbage that had been washed down the pipe during past storms; but was still solidly bolted to the walls. Just beyond, the pipe turned into a box-like room before emptying into the dropshaft.
Ducking under the safety chain, I carefully stepped into the small dangerous space beyond. The floor was slick, and sloped noticeably towards the drop barely two meters away. I leaned out until I could see the ladder on the opposite wall of the shaft. The water from the pipe behind me flowed past my feet, rolled off the edge, and dropped 12 meters onto hard concrete below. The roaring noise of falling water and the dangerous position I was in thrilled me; I'd finally done it- I was at the top of the dropshaft!
After retreating to safety behind the chain, I got a few photos, and went back up the pipe. I stopped along the way to explore a little sidepipe, which was quite short but still a fun diversion. Back in the large junction, I took more photos, constantly regretting not having charged my flash batteries the night before.
Hopping into the 1800, I went off in search of more new sights and adventures. Just after the first bend, the pipe seemed to align itself with the roadway above, which was interesting because there were no proper manholes- just catchbasin grates. Equipped with proper stepirons, catchbasins are nicer than manholes because they allow a lot more air and daylight to trickle into the underground. The sound of onrushing cars was fairly constant, as was the unpleasant odour of faint exhaust; but stepping into one of the little puddles of daylight under a grate was uplifting. I love the feeling of standing underneath the unsuspecting world above.
The drain forked a few more times, and I did my best to explore each branch. Usually, after a ten minute walk, the pipes (which were all RCP) would shrink down to an unpleasant walking size, and I would turn back and go into the next branch. The branches were all bland, boring round concrete; the only notable feature being one line that I suspect (from the smell and the slime) has sewage leaking into it. All the pipes seem to be located underneath semi-busy roadways; the banging of manhole lids and whooshing sounds of cars speeding by were constant. The only marks inside the pipes were worker inspection and construction spraypaint, dating from the mid-1970s. After being sufficiently bored by the endless shrinker RCP in every direction, I headed back to a junction underneath a grate to get some sun and have a snack.
There was only one mystery left to be solved in this drain. Two years ago, on the same trip where I'd stood at the bottom of the dropshaft, Dogboy and I had journeyed up a small sidepipe. We discovered a strange bunch of small pipes that had been dubbed Crabcake Surprise. On a whim, I had followed a small 1200 RCP line upstream for ten minutes, but since it looked like it went on a long way and I was already tired, I turned back. Since then, I've always wondered if I turned back a few minutes too soon.
Now, in the junction, next to me, was a 1200 RCP up on the wall. The pipe looked like it had been dry for a long time, and seemed as though it sloped away from the trunk line I was standing in. Very strange, and my mind immediately flipped back to Crabcake Surprise. I pulled out a map I'd made, and with some rough estimates, figured there was a very good chance that this pipe was the one that I'd followed years previous.
With high hopes, I strapped my backpack onto my chest, and went in. 1200 RCP is a horrible backbreaker size, but luckily there were frequent manhole rooms in which I was able to stand and relieve the ache. I went fast, and made really good time. The 1200 expanded slightly, into a 1350, but after a few hundred meters it shrank back down again. I walked, at a hard crouch, for 15 minutes, and my high hopes were beginning to wear thin. The line sloped downhill, in the right direction, but there were no other promising signs. I found myself wishing I'd left some sort of marker two years ago at the spot where I had turned back. After 20 minutes, I was just about ready to give up when the pipe dropped into a manhole shaft that looked strangely familiar. A quick 10m scurry brought me into the reassuring jumble of Crabcake Surprise, where I sat down for a break. I'd discovered a route to bypass the dropshaft, without exiting the drain! A hard route to take, but I always feel better knowing all the options.
Another very cool feature of Crabcake Surprise is the back door exit. A small pipe, about 900mm, leads down and out into a culvert, from which you can exit into a small ravine. This is the route I took, crawling out on my hands and knees, and praying that the way wasn't blocked with ice like it had been during the winter. Luckily, the warm breezes of spring had cleared the pipe, and in my haste, I nearly fell into the culvert. I was forced to do a bit more crawling to escape the culvert itself, which was still partially blocked with ice.
After getting out, I sat in a patch of dry, brown grass and pulled off my boots. Checking my watch, I realized I'd been underground for just over 3.5 hours (which seems to be the average duration of stay in any drain). After resting for a little while, a mass of Ladybugs began to swarm me, and I fled to the nearest bus stop.