By Wing Hong Tse
Where’s my group? Those people in the back? Those high schoolers dressed like the kids at Castle Frank station — pierced eyebrows, leather wrist straps? No way. Please, no way.
But, they’re the only people here in this modern-day thieves’ hideout, a café in the west end of Toronto. Cripes. “Urban Explorers?” I ask. “Yup.” Well. Huh. I’ve never done this before. I guess these high schoolers are going to teach me something today, take me on a field trip.
We’re all here for the same reason: urban exploration. It’s a subculture all about passing “Keep out” signs and exploring places such as hotels, transit tunnels, storm drains and abandoned buildings. In a lot of cases, it’s illegal. But that’s hardly a deterrent. We turn off our cell phones before heading out. Today, we’re hitting an abandoned incinerator. The afternoon sun is making me squint. The clouds are drag racing to the east and my two-ply snot rag is already soaked and crumbling.
Our destination is a two-minute drive away, a smoky-brown brick building known as the Wellington Destructor. It was built in 1925 and incinerated Toronto’s garbage but was eventually abandoned as the city moved to landfill sites for garbage disposal. Leading up to its entrance, the cracked cobblestone steps are now knitted with dried weeds and moss. All the doors heading in are adorned with “No trespassing” signs. Of course, we’re not heading in through these doors.
We walk east, hurdle over a railing, trudge through a 30-metre field of crotch-high grass. Then, one by one, we slither through the entrance, a half-shattered window that would be like crawling through a toilet paper roll for anyone over 200 pounds with a backpack. Inside, our exploration begins. It’s here I should tell you about two companions (and all right, not everyone is in high school). The first is Axle. (An online moniker — most urban explorers belong to Internet communities.)
He’s 22, a recent grad from Sheridan College, but looks more like a 16-year-old Stephen Harper. He’s done this urban exploration thing before — and it shows. He’s dressed like he’s heading off to Kandahar and carrying a tripod like a rifle. As we climb in the incinerator, he throws on a gas mask as if SARS is hitting again and for real this time. Second is Lorrie, an aloof child psychiatric nurse and the only female in the group. She looks mid 30-ish and probably shops for clothes exclusively at Mountain Equipment Co-Op. She likes caving and climbing and says she’s trying urban exploring for the first time after wanting something to do in the winter.
She clips on a head lamp. Meanwhile, nearly everyone else breaks out a flashlight. Snap, snap go the cameras. The place is a dark, water-glutted tomb, where paint is peeling from grey to blue to green and a mysterious slushy medley crunches beneath our boots. I can hear water dripping. I can see rusted, banged-up urinals and drains in the floor which may just lead to hell. There’s a stale stink in the air, like iron, stagnant water. But, I guess that’s better than meat and blood — there’s a slaughterhouse next door. And good thing it’s Saturday — it’s closed. I feel like the veins in my hands are turning purple. I want to put on my gloves, but can’t — the shutter on the camera I’m holding is too tough to press with them on.
The first cluster of rooms is knotted together in a maze. As we move through them, it’s quickly apparent the trash in this place was never all burned or carted off. The floor is littered with computers, the Toronto Star from December 1999 (“Flu/colds adding to waits in emergency rooms…”), propane tanks and videocassette tapes (“You = Architectural.” “Up + down rough cut 27/3/00.”). Soon, we come across this one room: long and slim and tall, three stories high, with feathers and sand carpeting the floor.
The afternoon sun shoots through the busted windows, and oddly, it’s relaxing, like the inside of a cathedral of some long-dead deity. Along the wall lie bicycles, hundreds of them, some of them with their spokes ripped out. Up above pigeons roost, sometimes adding to a foot-high slop of droppings below. I hope I don’t get sick.
There’re disease and parasites in that stuff. That’s one thing about urban exploration — there are risks. You could get ill, hurt or killed. In 2004, three 17-year-olds died from carbon monoxide poisoning while exploring the Wabasha caves in St. Paul, Minn. In many urban sites, explorers face dangers such as bacteria, weak infrastructure, loose asbestos and toxic chemicals.
“People often walked away from drums of acid, mercury, caustics and other very nasty materials,” reads a posting on Infiltration.org, a website born from a ‘zine on urban exploration. “I know of several instances where various unsavory — read organized crime — types used abandoned factories or warehouses as illegal hazardous waste dumps. “Getting a tetanus shot in advance is both fun and practical.”
Jeff (Ninjalicious) Chapman, the late founder of Infiltration, started urban exploring at St. Michael’s Hospital, where he was recovering from surgery. However, the subculture is not exclusive to Canada. In his book, Access All Areas, Chapman traces it back to 1793: A Frenchman, Philibert Aspairt, got lost in the Paris catacombs while exploring by candlelight. In San Francisco, the Suicide Club existed from 1977 to 1982.
The group rappelled down buildings, went through sewers and abandoned buildings, inspiring urban exploration in San Francisco today. Oddly, the club started out as a class at a free, alternative university. I follow Axle and Lorrie upstairs and suddenly it’s like we’re on the Magic School Bus and we’re in the cavity of a harmonica, a cavernous giga-room, with a blackened trough down the middle and holes in the side walls. This place is actually called “the pit,” a former city garbage man later tells me.
Garbage trucks would come along and dump their loads into the trough before a bulldozer would drive it all down a 10-foot hole. Now, the pit is packed with refuse: newspapers, beer bottles, a toaster oven with a sticker swearing it “works!” as if Toronto had a garage sale and everything ended up here, salad-tossed with a year’s worth of trash.
It sounds messy, and it is, but curiously, when walking through this room, there’s an obvious path; trash on the ground has been thoughtfully placed to the left and to the right by someone. Rumour has it the incinerator was inhabited in the past few years. That someone filled up the place with stuff and then moved onto a different place to do the same thing. Weird, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Some of the items, such as a full collection of commuter newspaper boxes — Dose, Metro, a pair of 24 Hours — suggest someone’s been around for at least the past year. Then there’s the 15-inch pot of yellow chrysanthemums, half brown, half wilted, but alive. That and pumpkins, some of them imploded and rotting. Some. I haven’t seen chrysanthemums or pumpkins in five months and, funny, here they are. Whoever was here, they had a fall festival.
Lorrie’s hands are tucked in her pockets. She’s looking around, alone, quiet. Axle is snapping photos, along with a few other people. One unexpected thing about this whole experience is that it’s serene and solitary, despite the group. We are 11 people, but that seems to be more of a security and safety thing. Another thing about urban exploration is that there are ethics involved. “There are some things you can come across,” one explorer says to me while we come across a board game.
“You want to take them, but you can’t.”
You have to have respect for the environment. You don’t break things, and as campers might say, you take only memories and leave only footprints.
As we trudge to the beginning and crawl back to the surface — Axle, Lorrie, up, up, out — I drop my pen cap. “Screw that,” I think. I’m not picking that up. I’ll just leave it for the next explorer.