Our tour guide is Bruce Beach, a dead ringer for Santa Claus, minus the twinkle in his eye. Instead, there is the hard look of someone who has been anticipating his own death, and the death of everyone he knows, for nearly 30 years. But he’s prepared for it: he’s taken the precaution of building a giant underground bunker out of 42 decommissioned school buses in a small town two hours northwest of Toronto.
He calls the shelter Ark Two, though he wouldn’t commit to the idea of being a new age Noah. Instead of two of every species, Beach will only save humans. Not even his beloved dog will make the cut. And of the 500 people his shelter can accommodate, 80 per cent will be children.
He sits us down in armchairs in the living room of his one-story home. Beach Googles conspiracy theories to give us some perspective on his project. He seems familiar with the pages, clicking through them as he expands on China’s ghost cities, FEMA concentration camps, and the implications of the Great Disappointment in 1844, the year of a Millerite prediction of the second coming of Jesus. Using the Book of Daniel, the Book of Revelation, and the year 1844, Beach outlines a mathematical proof that Jesus did actually return in the mid-nineteenth century.
After an hour and a half of conspiracies and some tense moments, we finally cajole him away from the computer and head toward Ark Two.
Ark Two is situated on a property inherited from his wife’s family, though you wouldn’t know it to see it. Standing at the gates of the compound, the only markers on the grassy landscape are two vinyl sheds and a heavy green iron door that digs into a mound of piled earth. The entrance to the compound is controlled by a chain link fence and padlock. Beach tells us that the two sheds are time capsules, one of which houses a scale model of the International Language Institute, one of his pet projects. His hope is that someday the scale model will be used to guide construction of the Institute above a waterfall near the edge of the property.
Out of sight of the compound gates is a large metal cylinder that looks like a sewer tunnel turned on end. This is the entrance to ‘the Brig.’ Beach won’t say what’s down there but you have to descend a 15 foot rung ladder just to reach it. It’s one of Ark Two’s security features: solitary confinement for people who don’t obey the rules. The other holding cell on site is the morgue, a place for those who, in Beach’s words, “stop breathing one way or another.”
Beach unlocks the doors of the Ark. Still standing in the sunshine at the threshold we squint into a dank tunnel that’s as dark as pitch. The generators that usually keep the Ark comfortably lit are broken, so we’re visiting with nothing but a single headlamp to shed light on our surroundings. The air is thick and musty. Beach seems comfortable in the dark, navigating the twisting tunnels as though from memory. It’s not surprising—he’s been working on Ark Two since 1985, while the threat of nuclear war with Russia still tormented even those without Beach’s commitment to the end of days.
Each school bus has been gutted and covered with up to five feet of concrete and 14 feet of earth. It’s difficult to discern the original shape of the buses, but for the arched ceilings in the maze of tunnels and low rooms. At the bottom of the entry tunnel is a standing shower and a bath. This is the decontamination room. Maybe it’s the eerie sound of dripping water that comes from the dark recesses, or maybe it’s the peeling paint, but the Ark gives the sensation that we’re walking through a historical site for a disaster that has already happened.
Beach describes Ark Two as an orphanage. His plan is that parents will drop off their children to survive the fallout, and go off on their own. “That’s their choice,” says Beach. The shelter is prepared for the issues that come with accommodating four hundred parentless children. The bunk rooms are differentiated by age and gender, there is a playroom and library for entertainment, high chairs, a baby diaper drying rack, and even a room for crying kids, so that they don’t disturb the other survivors with their wails.
The sort of attention to detail that compels Beach to include a crying room has made Ark Two impressively comprehensive. In the communication hub, a pile of old telephones, CCTV sets and radios wait to be employed; next to the kitchen is a room full of sinks for washing dishes; the storage rooms all have locking gates to prevent theft; the sleeping quarters have 24 beds each, though not everyone sleeps at the same time. During the weeks inside the shelter, sleeping will be done in eight hour shifts. To provide a little whimsy in dire straits, the bunk rooms have alphabetical animal names: Antelope, Buffalo, and Kittens (the misnomer for the C-room sleeping quarters).
In addition to containing space to play, sleep, and eat, the fallout shelter has a built-in well with pumps routed into a 5000 gallon holding tank, a commercial-sized septic tank, two huge (although currently in repair) diesel generators, a conveyor belt; and space enough in the field outside for trucks to turn around. As for security, Beach has invited local police and their families to exchange their services for a spot on the bunk beds.
The fallout shelter is well-stocked with supplies, although some are rotting and others have been chewed to shreds by rats. In one room lined with blue barrels, we lift a lid to discover it’s full of toilet paper. Cans are stacked in various spots throughout the tunnels, ready to feed the hungry horde.
We say politely that the underground bomb shelter is surprisingly liveable, and Beach corrects us: “we don’t call it living, we call it surviving.”
July 28, 2014
Beach doesn’t buy into the Mayan end-of-times, saying, in all serious, “I don’t see what this [article] has to do with 2012.” The date he predicts is July 28, 2014. It will begin with a nuclear missile detonating in North American airspace; the subsequent electromagnetic pulse will knock out electrical infrastructure on the continent, sending us all into chaos.
When asked if 2014 is the date he has predicted since he began Ark Two, he admits that he’s been wrong before. “I always think in a couple of years, for one reason or another. Fifty years it’s been that way. For fifty years, it’s always been just a couple of years.”
He isn’t too concerned that people will bang down the doors when the day of reckoning arrives. “I’ll probably have difficulty getting people in,” Beach says. “They don’t see any dangers upstairs. They don’t see, hear or feel radiation. The sun will be shining, the birds will be singing. Why bother? They’ll just simply say they don’t want to go down there with that crazy old man.”
He doesn’t seem to want revenge on the naysayers, or even the last laugh. While most preppers build a shelter for themselves and their family, Beach has built a fallout shelter large enough to save hundreds. He even has a stockpile of radiation detection equipment to give out to people who can’t fit inside the bunker. While most of humanity perishes, Beach will look after his friends, family, and neighbours.
If the end is certain and grim, we ask if surviving is really worth it. “Why live today?” Bruce says. “All back through history people had very very tough time. Times have always been tough for people. Most people just survive because they survive.”