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Journal: UofT Main Steam Tunnels

Fortunately, our guides didn't make us wear blindfolds while we were tunnelling.
University of Toronto Main Steam Tunnels (December 2002): Around seven months ago, a down-on-his-luck tunneller had written me to mourn the loss, through welding, of his beloved entrance to the tunnels under UofT. The bereaved had asked if I could help him out at all, and I'd told him about the one or two tunnels I'd found in the past.
      After the good karma thus generated had accumulated interest for about half a year, G wrote to let me know that his tunnelling luck had vastly improved and that he'd now seen almost the entire vast system. His newfound success was no thanks to the information I'd given him, but he wanted to return the favour anyhow.
      After a few days of giddy anticipation, Harpocrates and I met up with G and his friend Steve at midnight outside a certain building on campus that shall remain nameless. (Sorry.) While waiting for the janitorial staff to go off duty, we sat around discussing where we going to try to go, where we weren't going to try to go, and how fast we were going to run for it if anyone happened to spot us down there.
      When the appointed time came, we headed down to the basement and made our way to a pleasantly humming locked door. At this point, G and Steve told Harpocrates and I to hang on while they got in through another entrance and opened the door for us. They then took off, and for the next 15 minutes or so Harpocrates and I did everything in our power to look inconspicuous while standing in the middle of an empty basement hallway at 12:30am. Our guides' intense secrecy was a little unnerving. We hoped they weren't going to make us wear blindfolds once we were in the tunnels.
There are sections where the tunnels plunge deeper underground.
      When an unseen hand finally pushed open the door, Harpocrates and I scurried into the humming darkness beyond and snapped on our half-facemask air filters. The tunnels quickly proved themselves to be very photogenic, and Harpocrates and I slowed our group's progress down greatly with our awed appreciation of our surroundings. We ventured down a steep flight of stairs and up another set of stairs not far along — underneath a sewer line, G explained — and then headed on to the damp, unlit tunnels leading to the physical plant. When we arrived at the stairs leading up to the physical plant, we saw that the door leading out to the plant had been shut, an oddity that made G nervous. He let me risk opening the door and taking a few quick snapshots, but we decided not to actually venture in.
      We retraced our steps and headed off to the east. The next scheduled stop on our tour was to be underneath Convocation Hall, but as we approached it we saw that the entire tunnel was blocked by an orange tarp. G was fairly certain that this tarp was there to seal off the tunnel during construction or asbestos removal on the other side, and though we were all wearing air filters, none of us thought wading through a thick cloud of asbestos dust would be in our best interests. I snapped a few (lousy) pictures of the other side, then we headed back.
      After a quick look at some tunnels that lead to alarmed areas underneath the Royal Ontario Museum, we headed south to safer territory. We pushed under a hanging jumble of wires and emerged in a newish, well-lit section of tunnels. A short way in, a half-height door led down to an unlit mechanical room, and we slipped in to check it out. G opened a potentially interesting door, but it made a noise; to G, the noise sounded like the door squeaking, but to me it sounded like a fast electronic be-be-beep. Steve noted that an LED on top of the door had changed colour. We quickly plunged back into the tunnels.
      The next possible stop, G warned us, would require us to crawl through a narrow space to get around an alarmed door. Always eager for a good crawl, I assured him it would be no problem. When we arrived at the obstacle in question, G went first, somehow managing to wedge his very skinny frame sideways between two suspended pipes that can't have been more than six inches apart, squeezed himself through, and then wriggled himself down four feet or so to the other side of the door. "You next," he said. I figured if he could do it so could I, but it turned out this wasn't the case — there was no way my rib cage was going to get through there. With the humblest apologies I could manage, I told G I couldn't follow him, and that he'd have to crawl back, which he did with very little spite.
      As we stood in the tunnel trying to decide what to tackle next, a scraping noise came from a metal emergency exit cover about 10 feet away from us. We immediately stopped talking and listened. A few seconds later, again, a scrape-scrape-scrape, like someone fiddling with a latch. Several of us said the word "run" at the same time, though by then I think we'd all already started sprinting back as fast as we possibly could. The air filters made it hard to draw in enough oxygen, so by the time we'd raced back to the main tunnel we were panting like four asthmatic Darth Vaders, picturing security guards just behind us. We ran all the way back to where we'd first come in, and began stripping down and changing frantically, as a chaos of mouth-and-crotch-held flashlights sent our shadows flying around the dark room. As we packed up, there was a loud, ominous THUD THUD in the tunnel just behind us, which caused us to just grab all our incriminating equipment and pour out of the room, immediately walking to a nearby washroom to finish packing up in a safer area. We washed up, doing our best to get all the dust off, but unable to do anything about the deep grooves the masks had left in our faces. In better-lit conditions, it was easy to conclude that the thudding noise had probably just been a car crossing a manhole, but we couldn't make up our minds about what had caused the scraping noise.
Beautiful UofT rooftops. (Photo by Harpocrates.)
      It was pushing our luck to try to do anything else, but G offered to take us up onto a rooftop, just as a little bonus. We headed up some stairs to an unlocked door, and, after expending far too little effort, found ourselves out on a very cold, windy rooftop, at 3a.m., enjoying a tremendous view of most of the campus.

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