Exploring the Douglas Darkie

Hello readers! After my first draining post about exploring the Bowker Creek Tunnels I assumed I wouldn’t be writing about another draining adventure until the summer dry season; after all the region get’s a fair amount of rain during the Fall and Winter and the rule “never drain when it rains” was instilled in me from day one. Since that first post though, a couple of things happened; 1) I met another local storm drain explorer who gave me some great advice about the local systems, and 2) We experienced the driest October in 40 years – the stage was set for another adventure.

A new (to me) drain and a new compatriot

Not long after my first underground exploration I joined uer.ca which is a popular urban exploration forum. Through my short time on the forum I’ve met some interesting people, one of whom was willing to meet up with a total newbie to the hobby and show him the ropes. After a bit of back and forth online we agreed to meet, and re-explore an oldie and a goodie – the Douglas Darkie.

The Douglas Darkie is another fairly well known local drain. While not as popular as the Bowker Creek tunnels, the Darkie is well-explored and a quick Internet search reveals some blog posts and lots of interesting pictures making it another perfect beginner drain with plenty of documentation about what to expect. So, with a bit of research under my belt and a pair of rubber boots on my feet I set off to meet my new cohort and start some more underground adventuring.

Initial Impressions

My first surprise of the evening was just how close the outflow was to a residential neighborhood. I don’t know why, but for some reason my online research left me thinking the outflow would be more secluded, not mere meters from houses with people having dinner. After a quick glance at our surroundings my companion stepped off the trail and plunged into the creek, creeping carefully towards the 6′ outflow pipe. I was impressed with his confidence; which served to boost my own confidence and I followed without much in the way of reservations.

The creek itself was fairly shallow. While I did take a couple of wrong steps, leaving my boots flooded, had I been more careful it would have been possible to walk all the way to the outflow without getting my feet wet. A few strides later we found ourselves at the outflow opening and as I flipped my headlamp on my companion was generous enough to allow me to take the lead and I took my first steps into the inky abyss.

As we trudged through the ankle deep water I was immediately struck by the fact that the sides of the tunnel were coated in a thick layer of tar. The substance had an interesting effect of dampening the usual echo that one expects to hear in a mostly hollow tunnel. It also created a distinct (and unpleasant) odor which I would never fully adjust to.

The tunnel continued in a straight line for about five minutes at which point it veered sharply to the right. At the turning point I noticed a long string dangling down from a manhole far above our heads. “That was here last time I was here” my cohort stated, “not sure what it is used for.” While not particularly useful in this situation, the string did give me an idea for the future – should I need to enter a drain by popping manholes a string or ribbon would be a good way to quickly mark which manhole was used as the entrance. I proceeded to file this tidbit of information away for later use.

We continued our subterranean stroll and after about 5 more minutes we found ourselves in the first of two chambers – the San Juan Room

The San Juan room

The first chamber we encountered is the most well documented and explored section of the tunnel. It is a curved rectangle with the outflow pipe and the next 6′ section at almost right angles to each other. There’s plenty of room to move around and stand up. I’d estimate the total size yto be about 150 square ft. Immediately adjacent to the outflow there is a smaller 4′ pipe that drains into the chamber, although we didn’t explore that one. Study of some city planning maps after the fact indicated it likely wouldn’t have been all that interesting anyway.

Along one wall is a concrete ledge which appeared to be the perfect sitting height and opposite is a shelf adorned with empty beer cans and tealights. The entire room is also covered in graffiti; so much graffiti that the original pictures I found during my online research were almost unrecognizable – I needed to stop and get my bearings in order to orient myself to what the original photos were pointed at.

Original photo from 2006 (courtesy DrainsOfMyCity)
Douglas Darkie circa October 2019

As I turned to leave the chamber my companion chuckled, pointing to some Twitter handles scrawled on the ledge. Graffiti enters the age of social media.

A few minutes into the next section we came across the main attraction to this particular drain – a wooden pipe!

A fully walkable, wooden drain

While my research had prepared me for this feature, it was still way too cool to experience it first hand. As we meandered our way through the pipe I could even catch a hint of a wood smell, and periodically you could even see nails poking through! There was no doubt that this was a truly unique drain. As I tried to hide my huge, shit-eating grin, we speculated that the wood must have been treated with something as there were no signs of rot, despite decades of water flowing through it.

This is where to stop

We continued through the wooden pipe for about five minutes before encountering the second chamber of the evening – the “giant fuck orgie room” so named for some of the original 2006 graffiti. The second chamber was smaller then the first and had a significant curvature. Unlike the San Juan room this chamber was not quite standing height, unless you positioned yourself right below a manhole shaft. This chamber also had significantly less graffiti then the first, though along one wall someone helpfully scrawled “this is where to stop.” “Fair enough” was the response from my cohort as the way forward has been described as a long, boring backbreaker of a trek. While my companion stayed behind to take some awesome long-exposure shots of the wooden pipe, I decided to venture at least a little farther into the inky blackness.

This section of pipe was smaller then what we previously encountered, probably around 5′ which made walking considerably more difficult. While this section was also wood, it was difficult to tell as the sides seemed to be coated in a similar tar-like substance as the outflow. As I moved through the pipe my feeble headlamp illuminated encouraging messages scrawled in orange paint like “why do you keep going” and “Do you not see the signs?”

The next section of pipe was smaller and dirtier

About five minutes in I decided to call it a day – the chemical fumes were starting to irritate my eyes and there was no sign of anything terribly interesting ahead. The one thing I regret not bringing was my laser pointer – something which would have given me an indication as to the length of the tunnel. Subsequent study of city planning maps indicated I had definitely made the right call, this particular section continued for kilometers, and only got narrower as you went along.

I rejoined my cohort as he was finishing up his photography and, after one final glance around the chamber, we retraced our steps to the San Jaun room.

My first tunnel beer

Back in the San Jaun room we paused for a while to converse and crack a couple of beers – my first time drinking… well anything… deep underground. As I suspected, the ledge along one wall made an excellent bench. As we chatted, my eye spotted something unexpected – a Nerf dart lodged in a crack near the outflow. Having participated in a number of Nerf battles over the years I couldn’t help but wonder how such a game would unfold in the underground and promptly put it on my mental bucket list.

Before I knew it, quite some time had passed and reality was calling, so we packed up our gear and began the 10 minute hike back to the stream. Upon exiting the tunnel, I was shocked at how cold it was outside, or conversely how warm it was inside the tunnel. While the temperature inside must have been close to 12 degrees, outside was significantly closer to freezing. I suppose the weight of all that earth is a good insulator. Upon exiting the stream we said our goodbye’s and a promise to co-ordinate at a later date for some more underground exploring. With the Douglas Darkie scratched off my list, I was eager for the next adventure.

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