Let me begin by stating that despite the title, I did not get any of my friends stuck in a storm drain, nor were we ever in any real danger. I did learn a valuable lesson about knowing the physical limits of your friends before encouraging them to do borderline insane things with you though!
The streets beneath downtown Victoria are home to a number of interesting storm drains, many of them popular urban exploration spots for the local UE community. The drains of my hometown range from “easy to access” to “only attempt at stupid o’clock in the morning because it’s in the middle of a busy road!” Some of the most interesting drains are the old brick ones – constructed more then 100 years ago these workhorses have been tirelessly redirecting the city’s rainfall for decades and still maintain a crucial role to this day. Of course, these drains are also on the more difficult end to access and so, it wasn’t until the Fall of 2021, after slowly building my confidence with some easier spots that I managed to gain access to one of them.
2021 has been quite a busy year for me for a number of non-urban exploration reasons so I didn’t get to devote as much to draining as I would have liked, so with the dreary rainy season approaching and an available rain-free Saturday on my schedule I gathered a couple of buddies and made plans to explore one of the more moderately difficult to access brick drains.
This drain was actually accessed by one of the manholes I had investigated some months earlier during my middle of the night manhole popping shenanigans so I knew exactly where it was and had a good idea of how quiet the street was going to be that afternoon.
The morning of the great adventure I managed to enlist the help of my roommate to give us a lift down to the manhole. I was also pleasantly surprised when he expressed interest in joining us underground and we spent the morning shopping for boots (since the ones I kept borrowing were in pretty rough shape) and some high-vis safety wear to look a bit more official.
Around 1 in the afternoon my two friends arrived an we all headed out to the manhole.
This manhole is located on the boulevard of a quiet residential street. We were fortunate to find street parking near the entrance since the area is generally full of parked vehicles. We unloaded and began suiting up – boots, hard hats, high-vis clothing and headlamps, then seemingly without a care in the world, I lead our little group to the cover. A few vehicles passed us without a second glance so I guess our disguises were adequate. There was one stomach churning moment when a pickup slowed waaaay down as it passed, but they moved on and we continued our adventure.
The cover itself was pretty easy to remove. This cover was a metal grate and as such weighed significantly less then it’s solid cover counterparts. With the cover removed I volunteered to be the first one down the hole, since the entire thing was my idea to begin with.
Fun fact – this was actually my first time entering a drain through a manhole. While there were several instances in which I had made my exit through a manhole, but my entrance had always been through an outflow. I sat on the ground and dangled my legs into the hole below me. I gingerly placed my right foot on the top rung of the metal ladder and… it held! The other rungs looked to be in equally good condition so I gingerly began my descent into the darkness below. The rungs of the ladder stopped about chest height above the water and I had to drop the final few feet. I found myself standing in ankle deep water, hand on the bottom rung of the ladder, staring up at the outside some 10 or 15 ft above me when it hit me – I had forgotten to bring rope.
My upper arm strength is alright, but I’m not able to haul myself up to a ladder from chest height. My normal course of action is to use rope to make a sling I can hook my foot into in order to give myself a leg up in these situations, but of course this is the one thing I had neglected to bring. I yelled at my cohorts to stop, least I should get any of them stuck underground with me.
After assessing the situation for a few moments I realized the shaft was narrow enough that I was able to brace my back against one side, press against the rungs with my hands and awkwardly lift my foot up the the final run and hoist myself back onto the ladder. It wasn’t graceful but it worked, and I indicated for the rest of the group to join me since I had now confirmed I’d actually be able to get out!
One by one my 2 friends dropped into the hole beside me, but my roomate decided to stay above ground. He would later tell me that the moment he decided not to go was the moment I dropped the final few feet. “Once I saw that I figured I’d never be getting out and we would need to call the fire department to winch me out or something.” As it would turn out, having someone above ground would be extremely useful later on in our adventure.
With the three of us underground my roommate replaced the manhole cover above us and we flicked our headlamps on and turned to the task at hand – exploring the length of the tunnels!
While standing in the manhole shaft was possible, the rest of the tunnel was much shorter, probably only around 3 or 3.5 ft high. I decided we should first explore towards the outflow since the tunnel was likely to get bigger in that direction.
This drain was egg shaped; it was wider then it was tall. The water ran along a channel that was maybe a few inches in depth. I’m not sure if the channel was intentionally built or if decades of erosion simply carved the channel out naturally. The construction of the drain was entirely brick, with mortar used to hold the bricks together, similar to what you would expect to see in residential architecture from the period. In spots, I could see where the roots of plants had broken through on their quest to find water. The entire drain was in remarkably good shape, considering the length of time it had been in use for, and it was remarkable to see the attention to detail the craftsmen had put into it’s construction. Yes, I was admiring the craftsmanship of a storm drain.
We continued along this section for maybe 10 minutes before encountering a curve to the right. After that was a curve to the left and I found myself in a standing height chamber with a 3ft corrugated steel pipe cutting through the center. To my right was a relatively new ladder and a manhole. I excitedly called to my two friends who were a ways behind me that this area was standing height and then tried to reach my roommate above ground via VHF radio.
While my friends were catching up my roommate and I determined this manhole was… less then ideal to pop since it was in the middle of a road. Once the rest of my group arrived we stopped to re-assess the situation: Myself and my usual draining buddy were fine, but our other friend was not used to this kind of activity and looked the worse for wear. He was concerned about being able to make it much further since his legs were getting pretty tired.
I decided to see what was up ahead and found myself in a second chamber, with another intersecting steel pipe. A little further along I found another manhole – this one with a string dangling from it.
The discovery of the manhole and string was exciting. I had noticed this same type of string tied to several other manhole ladders during my adventures, and each time it seemed to indicate that that the manhole above was in an easy to exit spot. I hailed my roommate above and poked a glow-stick through one of the 4 holes used to open the cover.
The news sadly, was not good. Turns out this manhole was also in the road, albeit closer to the sidewalk.
From this chamber the drain continued towards the outflow, it was a little larger and the air was less stuffy so I suggested we keep moving forward. I knew there was another manhole just before the outflow which would allow us to pop out onto the sidewalk.
I set on ahead to assess the situation, with the rest of the group following behind. After maybe 5 minutes of walking I found myself face to face with a brick archway, a manhole above and a pool of murky water below. This was the section I was expecting.
I knew the manhole above me was safe to exit, however, after quickly assessing the situation I determined leaving here would not be suitable. The ladder up to the manhole cover was extremely rusty and the pool immediately below it was of an unknown depth. I had read stories online of explorers encountering sheer drops in drains before and did not want to replicate that misadventure.
I yelled at my friends to turn back, snapped some pictures of the outflow and turned around myself to join them.
Back at the three chambers we decided that intimately, we were going to have to back out the way we came in. We made slow progress, but ultimately made it back to our entrance manhole. By the time we made it to the bottom of the ladder we all looked pretty much the worse for ware. I was sure to send my buddy up first to get him above ground.
I decided to go next since the bottom rungs of the ladder were just below my head height, and recall my upper arm strength (or lack there of) makes a graceful exit impossible. I figured having someone below me who visits the gym on a regular basis who could give me a boost if absolutely needed would be a good idea. As it turns out, I managed to awkwardly pull myself up by bracing against the back of the manhole shaft, but it was far from a graceful exit.
After my other buddy pulled himself out of the hole we quickly replaced the cover and wandered back to the car while my roommate regaled us with stories about how some of the neighbors were interested in what was going on. “I told them we were doing a tree root inspection and they totally bought it” he informed us. I guess we looked official enough. I checked my watch and was surprised that we had only been underground for about 30 minutes – time seems to pass differently while underground!
After everyone was re-acclimated to being topside, I treated everyone to some warm beverages and pastries at the nearby Demitasse Cafe as a thanks for indulging me on my latest underground shenaniganry. The pasteries were excellent, but it was the first time I’d ever tried sugarless hot chocolate and I have to say, I definitely prefer sugar in my hot chocolate!
I’m glad I was able to explore this drain and cross another one off my list, and I’m even more happy everyone was able to get out sans incident. I did learn a valuable lesson about knowing the limits of my companions on future expeditions – something I’ll be sure to keep in mind before my next group subterranean exploration. I fully intend to go back to this site and do some more searching in the other direction, but that will need to be the subject for a future post.