Exploring the Jordan River Diversion Dam

“Is there anything else we might need?”

It was 7AM on the Saturday of a long weekend, and, rather then sleeping in, I was packing camping gear into my backpack in perpetration for a day-long adventure. Several days earlier I had seen some pictures of the Jordan River diversion dam and I was anxious to see this place for myself. And so it was hardly surprising that at the next available opportunity, I found myself packing into my roomate’s Kia Rio along with my good draining buddy at an ungodly hour of the morning to take a sketchy trip up some backroads in search of this interesting place. Given my hobbies in recent years, something that was not at all surprising.

The Dam

The dam is part of a hydroelectric power system which was first constructed in the early 1900’s to generate electricity for the Greater Victoria area. When it was constructed, the 38m dam was the highest dam in Canada, though more recent projects have surpassed that.

The Jordan River dam circa 2021

The dam blocks water from flowing into the Jordan River, creating an artificial reservoir and enabling the early engineers to redirect the water through an open flume to the generating station far below. While the original flume was decommissioned in the 1970’s and is no longer standing, the reservoir is still in active use; a 7km long underground tunnel brings water to the current, active generating station which can produce more then 100 megawatts of electricity at peak capacity. During high rainfall, the dam’s spillway is opened, causing water to blast through an 1800mm pipe into the river below. While I didn’t get to witness the dam’s spillway opening on this trip, I’ve seen some pictures online, and it’s truly an impressive site!

Getting to the Dam

Getting to the dam was an adventure in itself! While most of my other explores have been in relatively accessible areas, this one was not. While we did manage to make it in the trusty Kia, it was definitely not a good idea! The 12km logging road was sketchy to be traveling on with anything that didn’t have 4 wheel drive, and if I was to plan a repeat trip I would definitely rent a more suitable vehicle!

Just before the town of Jordan River, about 1 hour outside of Victoria, there is an inconspicuous turn-off onto a gavel road. Unless you knew it was there, it was extremely easy to miss, and even while looking for it, we almost drove right by!

Moments after pulling off the highway we found ourselves on an extremely narrow, winding gravel road (road might be a generous term) which cut through the forest and up into the mountains. The road was treacherous, at times washouts nearly forced us to turn back, while other times we found ourselves creeping along the side of a cliff, with a sheer drop just feet away from the side of the vehicle. In a previous post I talked about the nerve-wracking drive to Bradian, BC – this was worse and only felt less sketchy because rather then driving at highway speeds, we found ourselves crawling along between 5 and 10 km/h.

The road hugged the side of a mountain

The drive was slow going. It was about 12km from the pullout to the dam and the trip took more then an hour and a quarter. No cell coverage meant we were navigating with paper maps and if it wasn’t for the occasional other vehicle we saw, I might have even considered turning back. It was with great relief that we came around the final bend and glimpsed the chain-link fence that surrounded the top of the dam. We had made it! And the car was still running!

Arrival at the Dam Site

I was surprised that we were able to drive all the way up to the dam itself, there was even a small gravel parking area. Upon first glance, an imposing gate seemed to block our exploration.

An imposing gate greeted our arrival

However, closer inspection revealed 2 things:

  1. Some helpful person before us had cut a hole in the fence
  2. The gate was actually unlocked! Simply pushing it in allowed us to access the dam!

We decided to do some quick recon; leaving most of our gear in the car, we jumped up onto the concrete structure, though the unlocked gate and onto the top of the dam!

The dam is about 200m long and a walkway with railings runs along the entire length. Being on-top of the dam offered spectacular views of both the reservoir and the river behind it. I needed to stop and take in the awesome view for a few moments. About halfway across a set of concrete steps descended into the depths of the dam – something to checkout later!

We proceeded to the far end of the dam which looked to be home to some electrical infrastructure, sadly it was behind a locked gate, and there was no obvious point of entry. Our initial scouting complete, we turned back to the car to regroup, grab some gear and head back to the dam to start the real exploring.

Back at the vehicle, I quickly realized I had made a horrible mistake – the backpack which I had so meticulously packed had been forgotten! In it’s place, I had mistakenly grabbed my work backpack which had a laptop, power supply and not much else. My headlamp, gloves, first aid kit and other exploring essentials were at least a two hour drive back – out of the question for what was supposed to be a day trip.

Fortunately, there was enough miscellaneous gear in the vehicle that I felt confident to proceed with the explore; we packed a bag and headed back to the dam.

Descending into the Dam

Descending the steps left us on a concrete walkway through the center of the dam. Along one side was the open air, while the other side was solid concrete holding back the waters of the diversion reservoir. Behind us was a sealed metal door, while in front of us was was a long walkway into the unknown.

Descending the stairs led us to a walkway through the dam

The walkway through the dam was well lit, with one side of the dam open, there was no need for an external light source. Looking down off the sides of the walkway, I could see the ground about 20ft below – concrete walls splitting the walkway into 15ft wide sections. As we walked along, I began to notice a distinct smell – spray-paint, and before long we we started to see some graffiti.

Most of the graffiti was new, and some of it even fresh. There was a mix of dumb tags and some actually decent art, I was getting some serious ‘Hall of Wonders‘ vibes and wondered if this dam was starting to become a new magnet for the region’s graffiti artists. I don’t mind some of the nicer pieces, but if any place get’s too popular I worry about new security measures.

The walkway ran nearly the entire length of the first half of the dam, after about 60m I spied something very interesting – a ladder down to the ground and a convenient hole in the chain link fence facilitating access to the front of the dam. Hoping to find a way around that locked door, I eagerly pointed this out to my companions.

While my draining buddy and I were eager to continue the adventure, my roommate was less inclined to join us. I made sure everyone had VHF radios, and my roommate headed back to the top of the dam, while my buddy and I descended the brightly colored yellow ladder to the ground below. We popped through the hole in the fence and found ourselves at the base of the massive dam! Carefully, so as to not injure ourselves on the sharp rocks, we crept along the front of the superstructure, hugging the concrete walls at every opportunity.

The dam is made up of separate chambers, about 15 ft wide and maybe 100 feet deep. Most of them were open to the air, and many had graffiti on the walls. A couple of the chambers were blocked off with chainlink fencing – similar to the fencing we had climbed out of; but none of it looked particularly interesting. About halfway along the front of the dam, the rocks dive steeply into what was once the bed of the river. A ladder facilitated our descent to this lower level.

A ladder down to the lower level

Once again at the bottom of the dam we continued our slow progress towards the other side, checking each chamber as we went along. Eventually, our efforts would pay off! I spotted a catwalk in the gloomy interior of one of the chambers!

At last! Something to climb on

I knew by this point we were well past the locked door above so it was with nervous excitement that I ducked under concrete beams and over debris to the ladder up the catwalk.

Once at the top, I discovered the catwalk ran the length of the next few chambers before ending in a gated off section. Above me was a wire cable – the purpose of which I am still not sure. Between each chamber, a roughly 5 foot hole had been drilled, almost as though it was an afterthought; “oh, right people might need to access this for maintenance”

Looking back at the start of the catwalk

Continuing along the length of the catwalk we arrived at the locked gate. Initially this looked like a premature end to our adventure, however, I quickly discovered that some helpful previous explorer had cut a small hole in the fencing – just enough for me and my buddy to squeeze through. The next chamber was well worth the squeeze!

This next chamber was the main event. We found ourselves directly above the massive outflow pipe with so much to explore! To the left was the front of the dam and a series of steps climbing up towards the sky, to the right some cool machinery, and in front of us; the catwalk continued. There was so much to take in I experienced sensory overload for a few moments before my analytical brain kicked in and I decided we should methodically explore everything we could.

I turned to the machinery on our right; it was a large cylindrical tube terminating into a green box with some hydraulic lines descending into it. Because we were directly above the outflow pipe I am theorizing this is the mechanism used to open the outflow should the reservoir get too high. I climbed a ladder to the top of the metal tube and was surprised to feel heat radiating off it. The source of the warmth; a heat lamp, likely running to ensure the mechanisms didn’t freeze during the winter, and a confirmation that this was definitely an active site!

We poked around at the mechanisms a bit more, being careful not to disturb anything, least we should cause a massive discharge of water, and I chuckled at a beer bottle posed ontop of the green box – as though someone had left it there for a picture.

We then turned around and looked towards our next target; the steps at the front of the dam.

When you look at pictures of the front of the dam you can clearly see an observation balcony above the outflow pipe, with a small building behind it. We were now standing at the back door of the observation building. Sadly the door was locked, and an ominous sign about being sure to disable the alarm system before entering meant I didn’t want to poke at it too much. We continued up the steps and eventually found ourselves at… The backside of the first metal door which had thwarted our progress! Success at last!

The other side of the first welded door

In the other direction, the walkway lead through several more chambers before ending in yet another sealed door. Avast! Two steps forward and one step back! As I turned around to descend the stairs, I spotted something that gave me a brief moment of panic; a red box imprinted with the words “motion system,” had we just discovered the dam’s security system!?

Was this an alarm system?

I paused and contemplated the situation; I hadn’t seen any motion sensors anywhere on the explore, and if this was a security system why would it be so accessible. I then thought back to news reports from several years back, to a study saying in the event of a massive earthquake the structural integrity of this dam couldn’t be guaranteed and I wondered if this motion system was actually a seismograph – an early warning system of an earthquake. Looking up the model number of this device after the fact, I discovered I was right – this device was specifically designed for detecting seismic events in dams.

With two of the three directions explored, my buddy and I turned back to the stairs and began our descent back into the machine room to continue our explore further into the dam. I was hoping I would be able to find a way around this latest locked door.

While the next chamber was fenced off, the same helpful explorer who had let us into the machine room, had also pealed back a portion of this fence as well. We slipped through, juuuuust making it without any scratches or cuts. In front of us, the catwalk continued, this time with a small tin roof.

Eventually, the catwalk would terminate in a ladder, at the top of the ladder was a door which was chained up tight as could be. I guess our previous explorer-friend didn’t have bolt cutters, or didn’t feel comfortable doing that much damage. I don’t blame them.

I’m still not entirely sure of the purpose of the roof, there was no way it was going to provide any more protection from rain then the dam itself would, and I seriously hoped falling objects weren’t a concern. Maybe it was as simple as a use for some spare metal, but it looked pretty purpose built to me.

I had one last idea to try and reach the the area beyond the door. While on the top of the dam, I had spied some interesting yellow ladders embedded into the the rock on the far side. These ladders appeared to lead up to the electrical buildings behind the fence, and I surmised they might be way to access the final sections of the dam as well. We located a ladder to the ground, and crept towards the front of the dam again.

Stepping outside of the dam, blinking in the bright sunlight, I gazed upwards and gained a new appreciation for the scale of this structure. If I squinted, I could just make out the outline of my roommate; many, many meters above me. That fact that this was all constructed more then a hundred years ago was all the more amazing to me.

Gazing up to the top of the dam

I discovered the final chamber, and the path to the rocks was flooded. The water was only ankle deep, but it was a long drive back home and forgetting my backpack meant I didn’t have a change of socks or shoes. Not relishing the idea of having wet feet for the next 4 hours, we toyed with the idea of trying to make a bridge, but quickly discarded that plan as too unsafe – the only thing worse then wet feet was being completely wet and potentially injured from a fall. As I scanned the riverbed in front of us, I noticed that the water level dropped off a few hundred feet out, and there appeared to be a natural crossing to the other side. I looked at my buddy and shrugged, we headed back into the dam to make our way over to investigate.

Taking Leave of the Dam

Throughout this entire adventure I was in contact with my roommate who was hanging out on top of the dam. As the morning wore on, he kept reporting that more and more people were showing up, some of them even joining him ontop of the dam! I hadn’t though too much of it, until I stepped off the catwalk and out the first chamber. In disbelief I stared at the rather large crowd who had gathered to watch our escapades – Urban Exploring with an audience.

People started to gather

As it would turn out, the area was a popular camping spot and gathering place for off-roaders and most of them were intrigued by both our presence and by the fact we made it up there in the Kia!

While my buddy and I poked around for a little longer, we ultimately decided to call it quits when a family and their young children showed up and started walking across the top of the dam! While I would have liked to have explored the final section, I was not on board with exploring for an audience, even if they did turn out to be pretty friendly.

Despite the premature ending, our trip to the Jordan River dam was a success! I was pleased with what we had gotten to see, and was happy I could see the dam before the graffiti situation got too out of hand. In the future, I’d like to return and try to explore the final section – just not on a long weekend with fantastic weather!

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