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'Splash, plop, ew! Corpse Water!'

Urban exploration is not a pastime for the faint of heart. Leaky sewers, dilapidated hospitals, and towering half-built skyscrapers are not the safest places to explore. But for the brave few who do, and come out in one piece, there is a joy to this adventure that is unparalleled in our cosseted and safety obsessed culture. A couple of days ago, I spoke with Brad Pope, one such explorer, and he told me the cautionary tale of his closest brush with death.

This particular adventure began when Brad’s urban exploration buddies, John and Justin, came to him with the proposition of scouting out the storm-drains that run below Toronto. Specifically, they wanted to explore the storm-drain below Mount Pleasant Cemetery, which they knew how to break into. Brad couldn’t help but say yes.

That Saturday, they packed their gear (one set of rubber boots, three flashlights, a camera, and a pack of cigars), and after the sun had set, went off to begin their underground adventure. John, the leader of their company, also made sure that they did nothing too numerologically inauspicious; when Brad had asked him if he could bring Zoey, his girlfriend at the time, John shot down the idea, arguing that that would make four of them. One doesn’t go exploring grated off storm drains with such an unlucky number of people. Though when Brad expressed reservations due to the dismaying weather report promising “heavy rains” that evening, John brushed him off: “Come on man, don’t be such a wuss.”And so, with luck on their side and the weatherman against them the three intrepid adventurers headed to the Rosedale ravine.  

At the very bottom of the ravine, built into the slope was the old storm-drain, its edges coated in moss, with a dribble of water spilling through its rusty bars.  On the far right of the grate was their entrance: a loose bar, broken off from the cross beam.

They pulled the bar aside and one by one they clambered through the narrow gap into the drain. Turning on their flashlights they were reminded that they were far from the first explorers in that place. The cavernous walls of the drain exit chamber were covered by stratae of graffiti. At the very end of this subterranean art gallery, smack in the middle, there was concrete tunnel about 5 feet 10 inches in diameter, the portal that connected that cavern to the labyrinth of the Rosedale drainage system.  

After taking a brief moment to admire the art, the trio filed into the tunnel. With John in the front, Brad in the middle, and Justin at the back they walked deeper and deeper into the winding darkness. There was no sound , except for the echoing voices of the adventurers and the constant trickle of water beneath their feet. What most surprised Brad was the graffiti on the tight concrete walls of the tunnel. “The deeper we went, the older and sparser it got, ‘so and so was here, 1973,’ or Satanic graffiti from the 1980s.”  They even found semi-natural formations, stalactites of what Brad could only describe as “goo,” dripping semi-solid from the ceiling and forming glistening mounds on the floor. Along the sides there were smaller tunnels, pipes and passageways that snaked off into blackness. Occasionally they passed an alcove with a ladder that ascended to the cemetery above.  

About an hour in, Brad began to notice that something was amiss.  The water, which had been a trickle as they entered, had now more than quadrupled its former depth. They had to spread their steps wide and duck walk curved sides of the cave if they wanted to avoid stepping in the water.  The water was, by the way, disgusting. As Brad recalls, “it smelled like old hay, but metallic” and “had a strange sheen to it.”  Looks and smells aside, what really made them avoid stepping in it was the thought of where it drained from—the cemetery above.

Another hour further, the small concrete pipe opened up to another cavern, and a fork in the road. Like something out of an old Slavic fairy-tale, the three travelers were faced with three paths. Having talked it over for a little bit, they picked one at random, and continued walking.

As they continued exploring, spirits were high, but Brad couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that something was wrong.

“Hey, wasn’t the water level lower when we came in?” he asked his friends.

“That’s just because we’re going deeper, that’s just how it works.” John responded.

“Yeah…I guess that makes sense.”

They continued onwards, and the water kept rising.

Eventually their legs began to hurt, as their wide steps turned into a straddle, and the straddle turned into near splits—walking while avoiding the water became a literal pain in the ass.  The more Brad’s legs hurt the more his thoughts returned to the weather report.

Suddenly, from behind: Splash!

Justin had mis-stepped and stumbled into the water.

“Ew, corpse water….whatever, I’m over it.” He half-complained, resigning himself to walking straight through the dirty stream.

The other two took a moment to weigh their options: Cemetery Ground Water vs. Pain in the Ass.

Plop, plop, splash.

They chose the corpse water and continued through the tunnel with a normal, if unusually wet, stride. John was happy that he brought rubber boots.

The next time they stopped, the water had reached almost to their knees and threatened to undo John’s good decision. Justin ran off to see if there was anything interesting up ahead.

Brad piped up, “think about it, when we came in there was just a trickle of water. Even if the water is deeper here, it’s moving towards the exit. There’s this much water there now.”

A moment of silence.

“Yeah…I guess you’re right.”

“I think we should turn back.”

Justin returned, “This tunnel is crazy! It just keeps going and going and going.”

They chose not to go any further.

As they headed back towards the exit, the water was rising faster than they could make progress. Each step became harder and harder to take as the water level got ever higher.  The water was cresting white around their legs.  They had to yell now to hear each other over the din of the rushing water.

Brad shouted, “Guys, perhaps we should be going a little faster?”

John shot back, “What? I’m not going to run.”

They reached the ante-chamber with the fork. Except now it had turned into a thigh-high raging whirlpool.  

“Hey guys, do you remember which tunnel we came from?”

Fuck.

There was no time to deliberate. They chose one of the tunnels and pressed onwards, hoping that they picked right, not wanting to consider what it meant if they picked wrong. Whatever pretense of calmness they tried to show for each other’s sake was now gone.

They started to run, or at least the closest possible approximation of running that one could do when waist deep in churning sewer water.

Suddenly—a yell from behind, “Woaaah!”  There was a loud splash. Justin had been swept off his feet by the water. The current threw him into Brad who then smashed into John. In the confusion, John lost his light while Brad’s went under and short-circuited. Miraculously, Justin’s light survived his fall; they were not in total darkness. None of the three regained their footing, they were completely at the mercy of the current.

“At least we’re going faster!” Justin yelled with stubborn optimism.

At this juncture in the story, Brad looks me in the eye and says, “This is the point when the fear really set in. There was nothing we could do. We were then in the hands of a hopefully benevolent God, or at least at the whim of a hopefully benevolent sewer planning company. In other words, shit had gone full Goonies.”

As the trio was carried by the water, their feet were touching the ground less and less, and the ceiling inched closer to their heads, the concrete segments that line the tunnel every twenty feet or so were whooshing past.

There was now absolutely no chance of going back. And they still didn’t know if they chose the right tunnel.

“What about the manholes?” Justin shouted when his head bobbed out of the water yet again.

“There’s one!”  John called back.

“Where?”

Woosh.

“We missed it!” John yelled as the ladder flitted by them.

At this point the terror was almost overwhelming: that ladder they just passed, that might have been their only chance for escape. That’s it, they were done. They were goners.  Brad’s mom was going to read about him on the news.

The water had now almost completely filled the tunnel. Their feet were not touching the ground at all; their heads occasionally and painfully scraped the ceiling. The gentle bends became hard corners; the current smashed them into the walls.

They were blasting through the tunnels like cannon-shot, and in the flickering darkness they began to scream.

Then, when death seemed so certain they rounded another painful bend, and saw far off but fast approaching, a rippling point of light—moonlight.

The tunnel exit was right in front of them. As they got close, they saw it, a churning wall of foam where the water was shooting out into the exit chamber, the moon-light rippling through the foamy top. One by one the pipe spat them out like a fire hose. Back to back to back it threw them into the grate. Dazed but unhurt, they pulled themselves free of the flow of water, and fell off to the side onto the wet concrete floor—a veritable river raging beside them.

Brad remembers that moment with a grin, “We all just lose it, we start cracking up laughing. We’re high-fiving and cheering.  We’re just so happy to be alive! I’ve never felt elation like that.”

With near-hysterical joy, the trio proceeded to go through the casualties of the night.

“Hey look my boots are ruined!”

“Haha! Look at my phone, its dead too!”

They were laughing the whole time, the fact of their survival eclipsing any worries about dead gadgets or ruined clothes.

John pulled out his cigars; they were mush in his hands. He suggested they buy some replacements to celebrate the successful adventure. The three crawled out of the grate and, covered in corpse muck, went off into the night in search of a good smoke.

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