As you proceed through the near complete darkness, boots slish-sloshing through ankle deep water, your feeble light catches a familiar, yet unexpected object. You turn your head and squint at the yellow figure and as you approach you find your self muttering in surprise: “is that… Pikachu?”
Welcome to the Bowker Creek Tunnels.
What are the Bowker Creek Tunnels?
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. While the creek was once a vibrant aquatic habitat, years of urban development resulted in the waters being redirected and covered over. While around 2km remains above ground, the vast majority of this urban stream runs through culverts and storm tunnels deep beneath the city – an unfortunate reality for the local ecosystem, but an interesting destination for Urban Explorers.
While most drains in Victoria can only be accessed though manholes (such manholes are also often inconveniently located in public areas), the Bowker Creek drains can be accessed simply by walking along the creek and into the nearest culvert. This easy mode of access means the tunnels are a great way for an amateur explorer to “get their feet wet” (pun fully intended) and receive an introduction to the hobby of Draining. It also means that the tunnels can be easily accessed by taggers and graffiti artists which has produced a unique collection of street art far beneath the region’s streets. The drawing of Pikachu was just the first of many art exhibits I spied, ranging from the mediocre to the amazing.
The first Exploration – Fireman’s Slide
The Bowker Creek tunnels are probably the best known drains in the region – after a survey of my group of friends I was surprised to discover I was one of the few that HADDEN’T heard about them growing up, nevertheless I was learning about them now and was intrigued. After reading a number of references to the tunnel system on Reddit; I finally convinced myself to ‘take the plunge’ and descend into the subterranean world of Victoria’s storm drains.
I am a cautious person by nature and before taking any steps underground I did a lot of research and reading: what were the hazards associated with the tunnels? what precautions should I take? and what gear should I bring? I figured since the site was well used by graffiti artists it had to be relatively safe, but cautious me still needed some convincing. A few days later I had most of the answers; Beware of potential inhabitants of the tunnels (both of the insect variety and potentially the human variety), monitor your breathing (carbon monoxide can accumulate in confined spaces), and the golden rule: “never drain when it rains.” Being late July with weeks since that last significant rainfall, I figured the time of year was right for a little bit of adventuring. I did manage to convince a couple of friends to assist – one buddy would come along for the underground adventure and another friend would stay topside to call in the cavalry should the need arise. With my initial concerns satisfied I was ready to descend into the new world.
The Bowker system is actually broken up into a couple of different sections. On that fateful July day I managed to explore two of them, but careful study of satellite imagery indicates there is at least one, and possibly several more sections to explore in future. The two sections I saw actually have formal names in the UE community; Fireman’s Slide and the Hall of Wonders. Fireman’s Slide is actually the final underground section of Bowker before the creek meanders into the ocean, and it was the first section we tackled. The tunnel is located in the municipality of Oak Bay – just a stone’s throw away from the region’s fire hall and is pretty straightforward – one entrance and one exit around 800m away. After scouting both ends the trio of us determined that it would be impossible to get lost as you can either go in one direction or the other – good news for a total noob to the hobby. One of the entrances (or as it would turn out in our case, the exit) was relatively inaccessible, behind some bushes, through a community garden and down a steep slope. The other entrance, while in full public view of a walking path, was much easier to access so it became the focus of our entry attempts. Recall, there were two of us entering the tunnel and one staying topside, so it was trivial to have a scout to give the ‘all clear’ signal allowing us subterranean explorers to enter without being hassled. After pulling our boots on, attaching our headlamps and receiving the ‘all clear’ we were ready to begin our exploration!
Fireman’s Slide is what I would image a classic storm tunnel to look like. It’s solid concrete, oval in shape, around 3′ wide and maybe 5′ high. While large enough to easily walk through, we did have to hunch over through the length of the tunnel. Immediately after entering and ducking out of sight of the walking path we were greeted with a relatively steep downward slope, followed by what seemed like an endless stretch of blackness. Our feeble headlamp did a decent job of illuminating the immediate area, but was insufficient to light the entire distance. I looked at my friend; “do we continue?” “Of course!” was the reply; all the encouragement I needed. We turned away from the entrance and sloshed our way through ankle deep water into the inky abyss.
As we proceeded through the tunnel, the first thing I was struck by was how clean the interior was. It was entirely devoid of graffiti and the walls were almost completely bare of slime or other organic matter. The ground beneath our feet also had grip, despite the constant flow of water. Nevertheless, we proceeded cautiously, least one of us should loose our footing. The second surprise was how well sound carried though the tunnel. I would estimate the total length was between 800 and 1000 meters, but as we neared the far end of the tunnel we were advised via VHF radio by our man topside that we should “shut the hell up” because he can hear everything we were saying and people are “starting to ask questions!” Needless to say, rather then leaving the way we came in, we opted to scramble out of the far end, despite the blackberry bushes and somewhat intimidating climb. As the three of us walked back to the car, I exclaimed “That was easily the coolest thing I’ve done!” I was hooked, and the next Bowker tunnel awaited.
The second tunnel – The Hall of Wonders
After a short lunch break the three of us proceeded to the second drain of the day – an entrance to a tunnel colloquially referred to as “the Hall of Wonders.” The Hall is so named because of the graffiti and street art along it’s length. The Hall is easily the best known drain in the city, and, as it turns out, the most accessible. It was probably a better starter drain, but the number two spot works as well! Access to the entrance of the tunnel is really quite easy, and nicely obscured from public view. We pulled open an unlocked gate and walked down a short path to the edge of the creek and walked up to the tunnel entrance.
While Fireman’s Slide was a classic ovular drain, The Hall of Wonders was rectangular and, by comparison, HUGE! If I was to stand at the entrance with both my arms outstretched, I would not be able to reach both sides of the tunnel. Height-wise I had a good 6 inches above the top of my head, so walking though this masterpiece was a breeze. Side by side my buddy and I strolled forward into the darkness, headlamps bobbing up and down.
As we strolled along, stopping occasionally to take pictures of some of the better artwork, I was struck by how much longer this tunnel was then our first adventure; we kept walking and walking but the exit was no where in sight. After about 20 minutes, the tunnel widened; the rectangular roof was replaced by an arched ceiling and natural gas pipelines criss-crossed far above our heads. Researching the specifics of this tunnel afterwards, I would learn that this wider area is the actual Hall of Wonders – the rest of the section was just the lead-up, but for the moment I referred to it as the “party room” due to the candles and beer cans left on either side. Later research would reveal that this area has been used for a variety of events, including raves and film screenings. It would be cool to watch a film in that environment and I can definitely see myself coming back for a return trip.
Our journey continued and it wasn’t long before the familiar rectangular tunnel returned. At one point we stopped to admire a culvert that emptied from origins unknown into our tunnel. “We’re not going in there!” I exclaimed to my buddy. The pipe itself couldn’t have been more then 3 feet in diameter and would have involved crawling or crab-walking the entire way. Maybe a good destination for a future trip.
About 10 minutes after leaving The Hall the height of the tunnel dropped significantly – enough that we would have to stoop to continue. At this point we stopped and debated the merits of pressing forward – we had already invested more then half an hour into this expedition so turning back was not terribly appealing. On the other hand, continuing forward would result in stooping or crawling for an unknown amount of time – also unappealing. Eventually, curiosity got the better of us; so I hunched my back and muttered a few curse words as we entered the shorter tunnel.
As it would turn out, the decision to continue was the correct one since we soon spied some faint light ahead marking the end of our underground journey. Upon exiting the tunnel we found ourselves in Bowker creek as it trickled through a residential area. Unhelpfully, we were also behind a locked gate, however this was easily traversed. Overall we had spent close to 45 minutes underground, which was far longer then expected but I still feel there was more to see since we found ourselves rushing through the second half of our journey. The expedition was an overwhelming success; and for me personally, was the spark that would hook me into the hobby of Draining.