Finding the Bowker Creek Headwaters

"Bower Creek is an urban stream in the Victoria-BC area which originates in the wetlands near the University of Victoria and snakes it’s way through several municipalities before eventually outflowing to the ocean."

This is the way I introduced Bowker Creek way back in October of 2019 when describing my first draining adventure. While the description is accurate, something always bothered me about it; I never actually visually confirmed where Bowker creek originated, was it interesting, and most importantly; were there more tunnels?

The answer to all of the above was yes; otherwise there wouldn’t be a blog post about it! My investigation into the Bowker Creek headwaters actually began in February of 2020, on the same day as my second visit to the Hall of Wonders. After my friend and I finished up in the hall we proceeded upstream to where the creek first disappears into the Hall of Wonders. At this point the creek wound its way through a residential neighborhood, popping behind houses and under a few roads. I heavily relied satellite maps to track the stream’s progress due to the large amount of private property surrounding it.

Sandwiched between a playground and a residential street, almost hidden in the bushes I spotted it – an 1800mm concrete pipe that the creek flowed out of – a new tunnel to explore! Unfortunately, this time of year the seasonal rains meant the water level was quite high; I estimated that it would be chest height and we were forced to turn back for the time being, but I marked it down on my list of things to visit when the rainy season was over.

Fast forward several months and life, along with other projects would get in the way, always finding a way to intervene and prevent me from exploring this new section of Bowker Creek. As the summer turned to fall, I began to worry that another rainy season would arrive without getting the opportunity to explore this new section, however, in October of 2020 the stars and planets would finally align affording an opportunity for me and a friend to finally check out this tunnel!

We left fairly early in the morning, hoping to avoid attracting too much attention and arrived at the creek around 9AM. While I brought a fairly stocked backpack, as I was getting suited up I realized the one thing I did forget was a damn headlamp! We backtracked to a nearby hardware store and I purchased a replacement – one that now permanently lives in my backpack, least I make the same mistake in the future! It was now about 10:00 AM and we were finally ready to make our entrance.

While the water levels were lower this time, they were still quite high; standing in the creek it was about thigh height and I was glad I had waders rather then just boots. While the water level for me was manageable, my friend who was shorter wasn’t thrilled with entering the tunnel from the riverbed, so we popped a manhole which was conveniently only a few meters from the outflow and I sent him down the ladder and closed the manhole behind him. I then hopped into the creek and joined him at the bottom of the ladder.

The water level in this drain was quite high

The water level in this section of pipe was still very high; at it’s highest point it was sitting at about crotch height. While the water height was discouraging, and almost caused us to abort the adventure, I can be stubborn and was determined to continue with this explore. I told my buddy to stay where he was, and I would proceed ahead a few meters to see if the water level dropped. We decided to tie our backpacks to the ladder and leave them behind, not wanting to get them, or anything inside soaking wet. I figured leaving them tied up under a manhole was probably pretty safe – not the kind of place someone would be looking at to steal some gear.

Leaving our bags at the outflow

I turned towards the darkness and started wading through the fast moving water. All around me pipes were gushing water; the loud sounds of flowing water nearly enough to drown out the sound of my friend talking to me on the radio. I paused for a moment and realized this was my first time being solo in a drain, even if I was only a few meters away from my friend. It was surprising how isolating it felt, with darkness and a musty creek water smell all around me. I felt a mixture of excitement and apprehension quite unlike anything I had experienced before.

About 20m into the tunnel, the water level dropped off dramatically, soon it was knee high, and then just ankle deep. I reported this back to my buddy and asked what he wanted to do. Mad props to him for deciding to continue, despite only having thigh-high waders – he definitely got a little wet that day.

This section of the tunnel had a large amount of mineral deposits; stalactites had formed in a number of locations and some of the smaller pipes flowing in had built up huge deposits of orange and brown ‘stuff.’ I wasn’t about to get too close to investigate!

Once my friend rejoined me we started our walk forwards, after about 800 ft I began to notice a chemical odor, similar to that of the Douglas Darkie and before too long we found the source – another section of 1800mm wooden pipe! Just like the Darkie, this section of pipe seemed to be treated with a substance to repel water – splashing water on the sides caused it to immediately roll off, and the wood was in remarkably good condition considering it must have been installed decades ago.

Another wooden drain!

Sadly, the wooden section only lasted a couple hundred meters and we found ourselves inside a generic concrete tunnel about 4 and half feet high, and maybe 5 or 6 feet wide which seemed to stretch forever into the darkness. I glanced at my watch, timing the route, to make sure we didn’t go so far that we couldn’t make it back.

After 10 or so minutes of trudging we came across some graffiti – and I realized this was the first graffiti I had seen in this entire tunnel. While the other sections of the Bowker Creek drains were well known for attracting all kinds of interesting art, this section of tunnel was mostly devoid of anything. I suppose the mostly submerged entrance was enough of a deterrent to keep most people away.

Some of the small amount of graffiti

Soon, I spotted something interesting – light emanating from above us. I wandered over and signed with relief as I was finally able to stand upright. It was, of course, a manhole and seemed to be a decent opportunity to exit the tunnel. I’m assuming the graffiti ‘artists’ used this point to enter the drain, rather then carrying all of their stuff from the outflow.

We stood for a few minutes, basking in the glory that was finally being able to stand upright and peered through the grate to try and determine what was above. Fortunately, I was able to get a GPS signal on my phone, and with a mapping application combined with what little we could see, I determined we were in the middle of a parking lot – not a bad place to make an escape.

By this time, I was feeling pretty good and we decided to continue our journey forward, secure in the knowledge that we wouldn’t have to backtrack all the way to the outflow in order to make our escape. I glanced at my watch in order to keep tabs on the time, and shot a quick text to my roommate in the hops of snagging a ride back home once we were ready to leave. With those tasks taken care of my buddy and I hunched over once again and continued our journey into the underground.

The rest of the experience was pretty non eventful, generic concrete tunnel with periodic manholes above our heads and the sounds of cars rattling over them. I deduced that we were actually pretty close to the surface here, while in my experience, most manhole covers were 8 ft or more above; here I wasn’t even able to fully stand without banging my head on them. We continued forward for about 20 minutes, but without any sign that the height of the tunnel would increase or another exit point we ultimately decided to turn back and save our backs from too much agony. We made it back to the egress point, spotted my roommate peering down at us, popped the grate and climbed out into the early afternoon sun, all while a guy sitting in his car stared at us very confused. To this day I honestly have no idea what he must have been thinking!

Generic concrete tunnel which stretched forever

We then hightailed it back to the outflow and I popped into the creek to retrieve our bags. I got some pretty interesting stares from the residents when I hopped out of the car wearing my waders and jumped into the creek.

Fast forward nearly a year to a slow evening when I began to write up this blog post. My roommate popped his head in and asked what I was up to. “Writing a blog post about finding the Bowker Creek headwaters” I replied. “But you didn’t find them. You went underground but never came out at the headwaters.” Turns out my assumption that Bowker Creek originated underground, with smaller pipes feeding into the main tunnel was actually incorrect and the headwaters of Bowker creek were in fact above ground and accessible on the grounds of the nearby University of Victoria. “Let’s go!” said my roommate, and with that I found myself being zipped away to discover the origins of Bowker Creek once and for all!

We arrived at the university a few minutes later, and found ourselves in a parking lot adjacent to a marshy area that looked suspiciously like a creek. I hopped out of the car and found a helpful sign, not only explaining that these were indeed the headwaters for Bowker Creek, but also documenting the underground sections, including the two I was familiar with and two new sections I had yet to explore!

A sign confirmed it – this was indeed the headwaters

I followed the creek a ways until it disappeared under a road, into what I am assuming is the network of tunnels I had found myself exploring all those months ago. While I was not able to visually confirm it (the heavy brush made getting to the river itself difficult), the helpful map and some independent research both supported the conclusion. I left the university with a sense of satisfaction, and found myself already planning for the next exploration of the two new sections!

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