-- read about --
Vancouver- Canada's third big city, after Toronto and Montreal- was still very much a mystery to me, despite the fact that I'd been there twice already. On previous visits, I'd mainly skirted the actual City of Vancouver, staying in the surrounding municipalities, and thus felt I'd never seen the main attraction. Now, after a closer look, I know a bit more about Vancouver and look forward to going back sometime.
My stated goal on this trip was to explore some drains in the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), because I feel that the underground potential of this area has been largely ignored, or not given the attention it deserves. A city is built on its sewers, and they are an integral part of the urban landscape. Not to mention that a city as large and old as Vancouver must have some really cool pipes.
With this in mind, I did some research- both on my own, and by trying to contact local explorers for information. The information hurredly gleaned was somewhat incomplete, but there was enough to occupy several days of searching and exploring.
Through draining, scouting, walking and exploring the sewers, I learned more about the Vancouver area than I ever have before. For some reason- and I've found this to be true in other places- I learn more information, more quickly, about a city when I'm dealing with its sewers and infrastructure. Roads, rails, urban transit systems, neighbourhoods, and even restaurants all figure into the equation when I go on a drain trip. Maps will show me the roads that lie above the drains, where I walk around scouting, taking the Skytrain to locations and having to learn routes, associated fares and transit times, and restaurants for when I emerge out of a drain feeling hungry and tired. Deeper knowledge of sewer systems will also lead to information about the city's history; how and when it was built and re-built.
Draining wasn't taking me into downtown Vancouver as much as I would have liked, though, so I spent some time walking through the core specifically to be there and see the sights. Vancouver is definitely the city of cranes- so many things were being built at once, and everywhere. Tall condos line the waterfront and sit in clusters- all in that famous style of blue/green glass and concrete- somewhat boring to look at, although amazingly expensive to live in. The actual downtown has its share of plain, boring buildings, but also an large amount of more interesting structures. Gastown is a tourist trap, with pretty buildings housing specialty shops and souvenir stands lining brick walkways. Jester drove Nancy Drew and I through East Hastings once, which was an experience. The buildings there are incredible, but it's the opposite of nearby Gastown; all too real. The pretty buildings are darker shells, and instead of tourists homeless and addicts line the streets. I didn't have the heart to actually walk through the place, even during the day.
One thing that must be recognized about the GVRD is the security posture. Everywhere, almost all buildings are tightly secured. I saw more security companies than I thought could exist in a city, almost every fence is marked by a sign with the words "Guarded by". Barbed wire is the bare minimum here, and I've never seen so many coils of razor wire in my life. Within the city core, I can understand property owners fencing off their buildings in fortress-like fashion to prevent squatting or damage; but it seems the same high-security mentality pervades the entire region, usually making any kind of easy entry impossible. The fact is, razor wire topped fences combined with footprints from guard dogs in the dirt are a damn good deterrent.
Another type of security measure, often unintentional but usually present around Vancouver, are blackberry bushes. These plants, omnipresent throughout the land, grow in dense bushes. The black berries are delicious, but the plants themselves are a huge pain. They grow much like raspberry bushes, but grow huge and rapidly, sporting large thorns that somehow seem to grab onto any clothing. I enjoy wearing short pants- especially in 20C+ heat, so after a few days in Vancouver my legs were covered with painful scratches. The thick lines of bushes crowd ravines and gullies, making it very difficult to locate or access creeks and drain outfalls. Even the non-spiky vegetation grows thick and impassible in ravines, constantly affirming that this area is a rainforest.
Because of the difficulty in accessing outfalls (either secured or submerged) I was forced to resort to entering manholes to get into the drains. Another lesson re-affirmed is that popping manholes is an activity best done at night. Vancouver is a crowded place, and you will rarely ever find yourself alone at any time during the day. This presented a problem for me, because the transit lines stop running after 1am, and I had no other transportation. The manholes themselves were often locked by an interesting little mechanism, or even bolted down.
One thing that must be mentioned about Vancouver drains are their ever-present inhabitants, the spiders. There were spiders everywhere. Every drain had spiders in the manholes, and they seemed to spread down the pipes from there. They were less numerous in the pipes of deeper trunk lines, but a constant presence in shorter pipes and culverts. They ranged in size from small to shockingly large, and were mostly grey, brown or black. The webs were also everywhere, coating ceilings, walls, corners and even stretching across the pipe. Given that while draining we were frequently brushing the ceiling, corners, and inside manhole shafts (where spiders are found), it's probably lucky that we weren't actually bitten. Oh, there were also lots and lots of centipedes, too.
The greater district covers a large area, most of which was formerly rainforest. Several large creeks and many smaller ones have entirely disappeared, being re-routed into storm drains or as part of the combined sewer system. Exposed streams are marked with signs, and many storm drain grates are marked to remind people that the drains connect to these creeks. There seems to be an effort to promote awareness that the sewers lead to streams that are fish habitat, even though some raw sewage is still dumped into the drains! The individual municipalities seem to run their own sewer systems, although somehow the GVRD utilities engineering branch is also involved. Many of the old creeks crossed the city boundaries, and the sewer systems are an odd mix where they border each other.
There seems great potential for storm drains in the GVRD, even though I barely managed to scatch the surface with my explorations. The problem is that most lines require manhole entry, and I was limited in my research, time and transportation. Hence, I hope to return to Vancouver someday and carry on exploring the underground.