A return to Bowker Creek

After my successful exploration of the Douglas Darkie in October, the infamous Victoria rains arrived; rendering additional underground adventuring unsafe. I was forced to content myself with with reviewing archival images, online anecdotes and GIS mapping services for some time while awaiting better weather. The hiatus allowed me to conduct research and and formulate a list of new sites to explore, and first on the list was a return to familiar ground.

Bowker Creek and it’s many tributaries

As discussed in my original Bowker post; the creek is an urban stream that spends most of it’s life underground, flowing through culverts and storm drains across three municipalities in the Greater-Victoria area. While parts of the Bowker system, such as the Hall of Wonders, are well known and documented online, other sections of the storm tunnels are much less known, piquing my interest and creating an itch I just had to scratch. As soon as the weather would co-operate I vowed to do some more exploring and see some of these sections for myself.

With the help of photos, online maps, and GIS services, I was able to formulate some solid theories about which sections of the creek would be exploreable. Assuming the GIS sources were correct, I was able to identify three unexplored sections which should be walk-able. By the time BC’s Family Day holiday rolled around I was raring to go, and a week long break in the torrential rains afforded the perfect opportunity for some underground exploring. I gathered my gear, took one more look at the maps and convinced an equally crazy buddy to spend a beautiful, sunny afternoon underground in smelly, ankle deep water.

Attempt number 1 – a failure

The first section of the creek we set out to explore looked to be a simple-enough undertaking. A tributary of the main creek was redirected into a series of culverts before eventually intersecting with the Hall of Wonders section I had already explored. The online maps appeared to show a small (1200mm) outflow that quickly widened into something that was easily passable. The entrance was also obscured by bushes and trees; meaning an unnoticed infiltration should be possible.

Around 11AM my buddy and I darted behind a rec center to change into our rubber boots, hard hats and high vis vests. Once we were all suited up we looked pretty official, and it was easy to march with purpose across the parking lot, into the bushes and down the riverbank to the shallow stream below.

It wan’t long before we realized the issue with our plan – while the vegetation provided great cover from the nearby road, it also made traversing the stream difficult, if not impossible. After about 10 muddy minutes crashing through the brambles we admitted defeat and determined that a different point of entry would need to be found.

Return to a familiar tunnel

After our failure in the brambles at the outflow (actually, as it would turn out, more of an inflow) we decided to abort and return to what I theorized was the other end of the tunnel; an intersection with the Hall of Wonders section . Fortunately, a point of entry to that tunnel system was close by, so my buddy and I packed up and hiked the several blocks to a familiar section of Bowker Creek. Upon arriving, I pulled on my vest and hardhat, hopped the short fence, and descended into the cold water of the creek.

The first thing that struck me was the stream’s water level and flow rate. I had expected the weeks of rain proceeding this visit to leave the creek level much higher, and the stream flow quite powerful. While the water level was slightly higher then my first visit to this tunnel, it only came up a bit higher then my ankles and the flow rate didn’t leave me feeling unsafe at all. Once satisfied that that water wouldn’t knock us over we turned and faced the dark entrance before us.

Immediately upon entering the drain we were forced to hunch over as the height was only around 4 ft. Fortunately, this time we knew what we were in for and were able to take our time wandering through this section. A few minutes later the drain opened up and we were easily able to stand upright. I turned around to look at the entrance and let out a small snort, pointing out an unexpected site to my friend; several shoes tied to the roof where the height of the tunnel dropped. “Guess someone has been collecting” I remarked, a smile on my face, “reminds me of all the shoes you see on telephone lines.”

A collection of shoes near where we started

We turned away from the collection and began to walk towards the Hall of Wonders.

The first time I explored this system I was tired and apprehensive. If I’m being honest, I was rushing, laser-focused on finding the exit and never really took the time to enjoy the adventure. This time, with a couple more explores under my belt, and some knowledge of this particular system, I was more then happy to take my time and enjoy the stroll, amusing myself by admiring some of the nicer pieces of graffiti and trying to discern what was new since my last visit. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves at a right turn, the outflow far in the darkness to our left and the unexplored culvert to our right. We looked at each-other and then turned to enter the culvert.

An Unexplored Pipe

For some reason, I had built-up in my mind that this culvert was much smaller then it actually was. I suppose my apprehension during the first explore caused my brain to exaggerate the size. After about 100m the culvert opened up into a chamber, with a manhole cover high above us. The way forward was considerably shorter – the only way forward would be to crabwalk.

100m in the culvert height dropped

While I only managed to make it 30′ into this section my friend, who was in much better physical shape, insisted he was fine to continue. We flipped on our VHF radios (since cellphones has no chance of working this far underground) and I turned back to the chamber while my buddy pressed forward into the darkness.

I set a timer on my watch, and advised him that after 10min he should turn back, worrying about his legs giving out and becoming stuck halfway through. I started the timer and had my friend push forward, the report crackled over the radio: no more graffiti and a right-angle bend. At about the 5 minute mark my buddy rounded the bend and didn’t see any sign of the tunnel opening up, or an outflow so he made the call to turn back. While it was disappointing to not make it to the end; the evidence up until this point supported my conclusions and I’m very sure it would have ended up in the bushes where we started. Besides, I now had some valuable information; I knew how small 900mm pipe was, and how I wouldn’t be able to traverse it without waterproof pants or a skateboard.

Back to the Hall of Wonders

We retraced our steps back into the main drain and I was immediately struck by how much fresher the air seemed to be, and by how much cooler it was.

At this point, the only thing left to do was to re-trace our steps from the summer and admire the graffiti, something I was much more willing to do now that I was comfortable in this environment. We even had time to search for the ‘Story of the Universe’ mural – street art produced sometime before 2014 which depicts the evolution of the earth; from the Big Bang all the way up to the first human ancestors. If you’re at all curious about this mural, there’s an excellent write-up over at uer.ca by one of the original artists.

As we trudged through the drain, ankle-deep water flowing past our boots, I looked up and spotted something that was only possible in this coplder weather – thousands of condensation droplets on the roof, creating a surreal constellation of stars, or as my friend would describe it “something that looks like mold.”

The condensation on the roof was surreal

As we walked through the drain I was disappointed to see that some sections of the ‘Story of the Universe’ mural were beginning to be covered with other, less then stellar, pieces of graffiti. Most of the pictures were still visible; but I’m sure, in time, they will be covered over. Such is the nature of an unregulated space I suppose. I did make my friend take detailed photos of all the pictures we found so we could at least have a record of it.

Overall, we probably spent close to 90 minutes underground, much longer then the first trip and enough time to really appreciate the underground space. Soon, we began to see a faint light at the end of the tunnel and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves climbing out of the stream and up the riverbank. As we made our way back to the sidewalk, I noticed that the gate which we had easily opened during the first adventure was now locked – hopefully not an ominous sign of things to come.

Even though there wasn’t much new explored this day, I thoroughly enjoyed my return to the Hall.

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