Infiltration 11-15

he middle spread of Infiltration, issues 11-15 (published October 1998 through January 2000) continues the yeoman’s work of providing a baseline for the different categories of urban exploration. This work would be continued by author Ninjalicious for the rest of the zine’s print run, and subsequently in his definitive guide, Access All Areas. Ninj applies lessons from other urban explorers to his hometown of Toronto, and shares his wisdom and theirs in the pages of  his zine, by now a fairly influential and widely-read publication.

Issue Eleven: Storm Drains

This is most clearly demonstrated in Issue 11, which looks at storm drains. Like college steam tunnels, storm drains are a common target for explorers at varying levels of sophistication. One of the most organized and influential draining groups is the Cave Clan, which first appeared in the previous issue. Ninj notes in his opening that he’s corresponded with the Australian-based Clan for a year at time of writing, and that they inspired him to investigate the drains in his area.

One of the letters printed is from Morkal Dungoy (who goes by “Doug” online), editor of the Cave Clan’s newsletter, Il Draino. After his note, Ninj writes “My First Eight Drains,” which he pursues with his partner Liz in the Toronto area. Drains are often located through good old-fashioned research in municipal records, and entering can first require the urban explorer to venture into the “strange fringe areas… a gallery of horrors collectively known as nature.” Ninj explores these drains, of varying size and interest, with pseudonymous friends; every chronicle involves uncomfortable conditions and continuous resolutions to bring a hat and boots along next time.

Drains receive a lot of attention in the urban exploration community, with entire social circles and publications devoted to their pursuit. Ninj attempts to explain the appeal of drain exploration, which may be opaque to the common person: “I suspect draining offers many of the same mind-expanding benefits as being in a sensory deprivation tank… in such an unnatural environment, there was really no way for us to determine which was true, as there was nothing ‘real’ we could look at to restore our natural sense of proportion.” When he and his companions re-emerge into the aboveground world, “it looked hyper real. It all seemed unnaturally large, and filled with far too many non-drain colours and non-drain noises…. We were eager to return to the much cozier atmosphere offered by drains.” Draining is more about the journey for Ninjalicious than the destination, with most drains rendered anticlimactically inaccessible by shrinking down to the size of a small pipe.

Ninj’s pursuit of draining is strongly inspired by the Cave Clan’s activities; when he finds an especially interesting point in a drain, Ninj says “I thought I’d died and gone to Melbourne.” It is only appropriate that this issue should have an interview, “Under Down Under,” with a member of the Clan, in this case FiL, the founder of Canberra’s Cave Clan chapter and the webmaster at the time of the Cave Clan website. In the pre-internet era, the Cave Clan’s advertising was done through stickers placed in drains, giving contact information to like-minded drainers. Ninj plants some of these stickers on his own Toronto expeditions. The Clan first appeared in the prior issue with a story of a police raid on The Clannies, an annual mock-award show held in a large Melbourne drain chamber. FiL notes his award for “biggest coward,” over his ironic fear of heights.

Australia is a country with only a few large cities, and the Cave Clan is able to have good coverage of the major ones. Melbourne is widely agreed-upon to have the most interesting system of drains, but each city has its own character. Clan members name parts of the drainage systems as they are discovered, and often adopt and label a particular area as their “Tomb.”[0] Meanwhile, in addition to Cave Clan culture, FiL also gives practical advice on finding drains (newly built areas; searching for the small grass patches above for repair digging), entering drains (one end or the other, not through manholes), and dangers of draining (if it rains, no drains!). He attributes his own love of draining to an interest in urban history, and the thrill of exploration and exclusivity by traveling to rarely-seen areas (as well as the social aspect of the Cave Clan).

The final essay, Peter Sand’s “The Holy Grail of Minneapolis Draining,” vividly illustrates some of the dangers associated with traveling through storm drains. Mr. Sand has spent years in pursuit of a city block-sized natural cave that some maps say exists below Minneapolis’ downtown. Part of the tunnel system that interested him (having systematically eliminated other options) was only accessible through a single flooded tunnel. This tunnel only had a few inches of breathing space at the top, meaning its navigation literally left a very small margin for error. After encountering trouble traversing the drains beyond this entrance, Sand and his companions bring with them a canoe to travel in. They first bring the canoe through the flooded tunnel by submerging it and bringing it along the bottom with them; but on their exit they decide to traverse the tunnel while sitting in the sunken canoe, instead of swimming alongside it. This proves to be near-fatal as the four travelers lose their flashlights, have only a narrow space in which to breathe, and become tangled in the cumbersome canoe. Proving lucky to be alive (and failing to locate the cavern), Sand’s story is probably the most harrowing to grace Infiltration thus far.

Issue Twelve: Train Stations

The next issue uses Toronto’s Union Station as an example of a landmark worthy of conservation. In an opening editorial titled “Instant Heritage,” Ninj deplores Toronto’s plan at the time to turn Union Station into a tourist attraction for the new “cookie-cutter” sports stadium, which itself will “maintain the spirit and legend” of the old one. He doesn’t want to see the station turned into a “pretty doorway and souvenir shop,” and notes of the stadium work itself that “it is impossible to erect a new heritage building, by definition.” “As if I didn’t hate professional sports enough already,” he laments. The letters section covers additional train stations, including Buffalo’s Central Terminal, a site that has received a considerable amount of attention from Ninjalicious and other urban explorers.

Union Station was teenage Ninjalicious’ first taste of monumental architecture, traveling into the city from the suburbs. Building on an earlier issue, for this article Ninj enters the RT Tunnels (seen in issue 5), which are closed to repair a leak. He is easily able to sneak onto the concourse, and explore the rail sheds, parking garages, and steam tunnels from there. Ninj pays particularly close attention to the parking garages, though he knows that “most people don’t get all worked up over parking garages the way I do.” These have grown in a haphazard manner and have many different relics and unused areas charting the history of their expansion. He praises the architects responsible for expanding and building around the station’s original architecture instead of resorting to demolition.

The last article is on the “Chicago Tunnel Company” by Phil O’Keefe. This was a miniature rail system under downtown Chicago that was used for the first half of the 20th century to ferry supplies between office buildings. O’Keefe is able to get official clearance from his employers to traverse the tunnels; he finds many of them to be flooded or scavenged, but others to contain things like antique light fixtures and even a marooned rail car.

Issue Thirteen: Construction Sites

Construction sites are another essential field of urban exploration [1]. They are typically surrounded by some form of opaque fencing, but Ninj believes that view-ports are added as a kind of release valve for curious neighbors, who need to know what they will be walking by or residing next to in the long term. The issue’s letters (or “construction communiques”) feature a return of previous tunnel runner Chris Blickensderfer, who reveals his current work as an architect/construction engineer, and the relative ease of exploring a staffed construction site if one is able to act the part. Ninj proceeds to feature “The Sheppard Subway Line,” explored in its construction by he and Liz, as well as a friend with the pseudonym “Leftist.” The workers on the subway line are described as an invasion force, but the subway itself comes about through a pregnancy metaphor (with a footnote filtering the duality of construction and destruction through the lens of the Transformers cartoon). Any time Ninj notes a distance traveled, it is measured in cash expended ($137,000 per meter). The expedition is a successful merger of construction site and subway exploration, locating a massive, functioning tunnel boring machine, as well as embryonic future subway stations.

There is also a helpful guide to dressing and packing for the job, as construction site exploring can be facilitated by the right disguise and credibility props. The zine (published May of 1999) notes how grunge is “starting to” go out of fashion, and how you can bring a cell phone with you, “if you’re high-tech.”

The other site that Ninj explores in this issue is “Festival Hall,” about a large retail/entertainment complex under construction for two years in downtown Toronto. They even manage to snap a grainy photo of a sleeping security guard in a half-completed movie theater.

Any UE site is subject to change at the whims of its owners and administrators, but construction sites are by their nature entirely temporary. They are difficult to chronicle, as change happens on a daily basis. However, in a sprawling urban environment, a new construction site will always present itself.

Issue Fourteen: Scary Stories

Here, a slightly less concrete topic: it focuses on frightening experiences, mostly in the form of a trio of stories. Ninj’s opening editorial is again the most interesting part of the issue. Regarding the role of fear and unsettling environments in urban exploring, he says that he tries “to avoid being cast as some sort of edgy thrill-seeker who washes his adrenaline down with Mountain Dew. I try to stress that, in my view, infiltrating is an antisocial hobby motivated by a geeky fascination with architecture and engineering and that it could scarcely have less in common with ‘extreme sports.’” However he acknowledges that fear is inherent to urban exploration, comparing an exploration with no threat of punishment to “a lion being served a steak on a platter.”

“Explorers” by Michael Currin is a bildungsroman about a trio of teenagers descending into an abandoned missile silo in Roswell, New Mexico in the early 1970s. Surprisingly, despite the setting, the author manages to make it through the entire article without bringing up aliens or UFOs. This was a very engaging and well-written story, with the writer lucky to have escaped from his journey unscathed. These stories presented aren’t intended to be practical guides to urban exploration opportunities (especially as the information in this one was almost three decades outdated at time of publication); but they are undoubtedly interesting to both explorer and layman alike. They can’t be replicated, serving instead to tantalize explorers with examples of the pinnacle of their hobby, found in the depths of a missile silo.

The last story, “Fort San” by Colin Leach, tells of a former tuberculosis sanitarium in Saskatchewan, partially opened as a destination for various social camps. The specific story is of a journey to find an alleged morgue, again undertaken by youngsters who gain more from the journey than the destination.

Between these, Ninj provides an interesting pop-cultural connection with “Under Degrassi High,” exploring the underground of the technological showcase school, the Bell Center for Creative Communications, which was used as the filming location for Degrassi High from 1989-1991. Most interestingly, it is a school that Ninjalicious attended as a teenager. The school contains many technological rooms in various states of use and abandonment, which are almost as interesting as brief glimpses into Ninjalicious’ adolescence. The school, which at the time was “perhaps the only school in the world where the high-tech computer workstations outnumbered the students,” (another glimpse into an age different from our own), it fits in between St. Michael’s Hospital and the Royal York Hotel as one of the architectural motivators of Ninj’s “infiltrating bug.” He reminisces while traveling through a utility tunnel that as an antisocial student, he had occasionally eaten his lunch here alone, as it “offered me a safe haven from the too-perfect school and provided a nice reality break when I’d been using computers too long.” Infiltration clearly was a labor of love for Ninjalicious, and it would not have the same spirit if it had come from another author.

Issue Fifteen: At Sea

The final issue in this set is one of the most unique, but also I believe an issue that misses a few opportunities. “Infiltration at Sea” is another glimpse into a world of extensive opportunities for exploring ships, harbors, and other maritime settings. Ninj admits that he “barely scratched the surface,” yet the purpose of Infiltration isn’t to be comprehensive, but only to unlock a door to these worlds.

I find the stories told to be some of the most harrowing, including a letter from a Tommy Sweeney regarding the time he and a friend explicitly broke onto a freighter, the Irwin L. lymer, plying the Great Lakes. He enacts a hair-raising escape, and makes it clear that this was not his only act of piracy. Ninj notes that he is reversing the letters’ page policy of only letters relevant to the issue’s topic. “At Sea” proceeds with an unsigned tour of off-limits parts of ferries in British Columbia, Ninj’s unique tour of the abandoned ship-themed restaurant La Grande Hermine on Lake Ontario, and a very brief note on opportunities in Hamilton Harbour, “Canada’s Industrial Playground.”

The most interesting feature is “The Brent Spar,” an interview with “Mike,” a member of the team of Greenpeace members who occupied the eponymous oil buoy in the North Sea in 1995. To make a long story short: the buoy, abandoned by that point, was going to be scuttled and sunk deep at sea by Shell Oil. Greenpeace occupied the buoy (which had seven decks above the water line as a living quarters) and repulsed any effort to evict them. Their massive media campaign exerted enough public pressure that Shell acquiesced to a land disassembling. This interview, conducted by The Chernobyl Kid, is an interesting note-comparison between the UE community and the radical environmental left; Mike had a unique experience at an abandoned location (a “post-industrial Mary Celeste”)  to share. He discusses the toxic gas on the lower decks, and how the first thing Shell did after the occupation ended was to strip the living quarters to make the buoy uninhabitable. This experience and location may not be replicable, but it is definitely a tale of the thrills of (a form of) urban exploration.

Despite the disclaimer that this issue only scratches the surface of maritime UE, there are several opportunities that I feel are missed by this issue. One of the most accessible vessels for the middle-class yuppie is the cruise ship, yet none are on display. I’m not sure exactly how Ninj solicited content, as the previous several issues are devoid of “Scheduled Infiltrations” on the back cover. I assume the agenda was provided on the website at the time, but I am surprised that industrial vessels are featured more prominently than passenger vessels.

Personally, I might have added a connection between interest in abandoned buildings and an interest in shipwrecks. In my experience I was drawn to shipwrecks before I was interested in the precursors to abandoned sites, haunted houses. The first academic I knew the name of was Dr. Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the Titanic, the Bismarck, and others.

To see if others viewed a connection, I asked a friend of mine who has worked as a maritime archaeologist if she thinks that an interest in shipwrecks is a cousin of an interest in abandoned buildings. She told me that she did see a connection: the appeal of finding a spot frozen in time. I am not disappointed that these subjects weren’t mentioned; but I think it goes to show that maritime urban exploration is a field as vast as the ocean itself, and is a topic that deserves more attention.

 

These middle issues of Infiltration provide workmanlike coverage of different UE disciplines, filtered through the Toronto lens. Important parts of the urban fabric are covered, from the promise of future buildings to the underground of storm drains. A built environment is a subject for exploration at any stage of its life: during construction, as a live site, and after its abandonment. Ninj spends some of his time in his editorials discussing urban exploration itself, as he settles into his role as its creator, facilitator, and chronicler. He is not inventing activities wholesale, but is cross-pollinating them to a diverse and accepting audience. This, in addition to the clear evolution of the zine, and Ninj’s discussion of his past (and his present, as Liz appears more frequently), continues to unfold the story of Infiltration and of urban exploration through its creator and protagonist, Ninjalicious.

[0] This is listed among other “Drainspeak” terms on the back cover.

[1] It should be noted that my notions of the different ‘disciplines” or urban exploration on display are somewhat circular, as they are informed by Ninjalicious’ own book, Access All Areas, which he completed before his death in 2005. The book has chapters covering draining, construction sites, and other elements, and these issues of Infiltration are recognizable as a prototype for that analysis.