Leaving from Jeff’s house in Guelph, the three of us braved the winter evening and followed a secret tunnel to a place that is known as Dracula’s Garden. The garden is really a secret room beneath a city in Ontario. The trip there and back was exhausting. We were underground for just over 2 hours, crawling, duck walking and stooping. We waded through an old and crumbling passage that is known as the blood sluice – and at the end, a most incredible place that is decorated in soda straws and various other formations that are usually found in caves.
Jeff found a strange green marble that we called the “Dracula’s Eye” and SNAFU discovered a symbol part way along the hidden passage that was etched into the wall; I say it is for the Illuminati, but that is only wild speculation.
Most intriguing about the speleothems in Dracula’s Garden is the fact that they have formed so incredibly quickly.
Soda straws, curtains and stalactites are composed of calcite that has been leached out of the soil and rock above and re-deposited within an underground cavity. The basic process is that carbonic acid dissolves the calcite as acid laced ground-water passes through calcium rich substrate. Cool temperatures, lots of water and the presence of organic matter adds to the concentration of the acid. By the time the carbonic acid rich water reaches an underground cavity, and is is heavily laden with dissolved calcite, it gases off carbon dioxide and becomes super-saturated with calcite, thus it dumps this at the edge of a speleothem and grows it as some fantastic lacy rock pinnacle or curtain or cave pearl.
In Dracula’s Garden the speleothems have grown with amazing rapidity. Decorations like those seen here are usually thousands of years in the making, these formations are pure and white and hard and yet they could not be older than the cavity in which they’ve formed – about 100 – 160 years in age. Conditions for speleothem growth must be ideal. I had once seen a single soda straw in a sewer in Hamilton (Stairway to Paradise), but it was puffy and porous – more like tufa than the pure and well formed soda straws in this spot.
Two hours of crawling and duck-walking leaves my legs in agony today. I can barely walk and I’m sure my companions are suffering some similar pain as well – SNAFU more his knees being a problem as being the tallest he found the height most dehabilitating and he crawled more than duck-walked. In the video you can hear this strange whump, whump sound in the background, that’s him crawling in his hip waders. As it is now dark I think a little hot tub therapy might ease the pain – standing after sitting is the worst and going down steps is almost impossible (I have to go down backwards on my hands and knees).
At the top end of a precipitous limestone valley near Toronto JC and I had found this pipe that ran up into a concrete barrier. That day we had been looking for caves on a tip from andrew. I believe we may have found what he had described (more on that in another post), but more to the point of this picture, we found this curious rusty pipe. well it was hard to ignore the mole in me and I soon found myself crawling up it – wondering where it went.
I suppose there is still room for urban exploration out in the countryside, and sweeter yet is something that is old and decaying in a forgotten valley.
Stay tuned as this coming weekend JC and I are again heading northwards for some serious Ontario cave exploration. We have several leads, in particular pushing Milo Cave and hopefully opening the extension of the tunnel that leads on beneath a granite hillside. Of course the semi – albino crayfish are encouraging.
An unseasonably warm day – early March found JC and I visiting Southern Ontario on a search for abandoned gypsum mines.
Where both the Grand River and the Nith River meet there is the quaint though somewhat aged town of Paris. It has the appearance of having been passed by progress, there are brick and barn board sided buildings in the downtown – somewhat neglected, but full of character. Large mills had once tapped the water power and the mining of plaster of Paris leaves a fascinating terrain of forgotten rail embankments, inexplicable hollows and gullies along the river bank, weirs and beaches where barges once loaded up the chalky material from underground and of course decayed and vine choked foundations.
I was inspired to photograph this backstreet business, ‘The Grand River Experience’ it appears that they offer canoe and kayak rental as well as tours down the river; I believe it was on their website that I had my first glimpse of a riverside gypsum mine – supposedly one of many that are around there. As you might have guessed, there is a connection between ‘plaster of Paris’ and the coincidence of this calcium sulfate material being mined from a conglomerate that underlies the area. It is said that the gypsum comes from Silurian age lenticular deposits on the south east flank of the Algonquin Arch.
Devil’s Cave is one example of a local feature where running water has dissolved away the gypsum and having washed the conglomerate out, there are small cavities lived in by a colony of beavers and decorated by spectacular white speleothems and flowstone.
Having now visited this area several times and followed apparently sure leads, both JC and I are somewhat disillusioned as to the prospects of finding open gypsum adits – though a cave is far preferred. Everything seems blocked up real well (with the exception of a single adit along the river bank downriver from the town). Crossed shovel and pick symbols on a map (available on the internet) generally leads you to a spot where you’ll find an undercut that is pretty much buried in countless tons of soil.
Having long been fascinated by industrial archeology, urban exploration and various forgotten tunnel explorations I’d like to know of where there are old gypsum mines around Paris where an interested person can visit and actually go underground?
Leaded paint rock art circa 1970. Do you suppose the artist was trying to express his inner soul? will this still be here a thousand years from now and what will they surmise of primitive Ontarions?
I found this unique piece of primitive graffiti in an abandoned Mine near Niagara Falls – this at the edge of a pool of water that stretched on into cavernous darkness. All through the water there are great hand-cut wooden beams and remnants of the previous mining operation and a deflated plastic raft that had once been used to venture deeper in. From past experience this would be the best way to do it as the mud is really treacherous.
As you might guess by my post I did not go to P-Lake today. I woke up At around 03:30 with a terrible headache (I always get one when the clouds are moving in and I hear we are in for a severe rainstorm tonight) and I thought – “I’m on holiday, why do I want to do this to myself.” It’s a 5 hour drive either way, lots of hacking through the bush and then I’m not even sure of where the cave is. Last time almost killed me. So instead I switched the alarm off and slept in till about 10 and then I went south for 2 hours instead of north for 5 – to the Queenstone Sandstone Mine. It was relatively easy to find and just as big and mazy as I remembered from that trip with Dan about 10 years ago. Only thing that has changes was the path to get there.
See that pillar in the middle of the room – go ahead kick it – I dare you.
There’s a crevice that cuts under a cliff face. It leads to an underground lake that just goes on and on. Dan and I spent about two hours underground wandering waist deep in water. I am thinking that the mine is somewhere between 100 and 170 years old.
Back in the 1820′s and 30′s there was a serious demand for building stone in Southern Ontario; Whirlpool Sandstone was one of the most valued materials. It was extracted from a layer just above the Queenstone shale.
Near Belfountain you can see this rock at the base of Church’s Falls. See the chapter on Belfountain on page 69 of my book “Rockwatching; Adventures Above and Below Ontario” The rock that came from there was a maroon color and was used to build Queen’s Park and various buildings at University of Toronto. Down here in the more southerly areas of the escarpment the Whirlpool Sandstone seems a lot higher on the escarpment than it is further to the north. It is also more varied in color and I am told that it is possible to find azurite and malachite in chert pockets in that rock.
Anyway the construction of the Welland Canal generated a great deal of demand for building stone as did the increasing size of the urban structures around the “Golden Horseshoe.” Finally around 1900 the skyscraper came into being. The strength of the modern skyscraper comes not from its rigid outer shell but from its internal steel girder skeleton. This change in design meant that standard construction stones suddenly lost their market and materials such as Italian and Indian marbles started showing up. They formed a thin veneer as did materials like glass, labradorite and granite. they were in no way responsible for the buildings structural integrity. Sandstone had seen its day and the mines closed shortly thereafter.
Some years back year Jeff Mirza and I traveled up to Belfountain to see if we could find our way into one of these underground tunnel systems. Apparently there are several deep passages above the hairpin bend as you wind down from Belfountain into the Credit Valley. Jeff had even seen a picture of a shaft in the forest with a ladder leading down into the mines. After a day of trudging along the hillsides we came to the conclusion that the entrances had all been blasted shut. It was not the case here. The tunnels lie wide open. It was as much a historical exploration as it was a geological one. The rooms were quite low though generally very wide and initially lit by small shafts that cut up to a brambly plateau above. The vegetation was so thick that it was almost impossible to progress on the surface, nevertheless, the shafts of light on the underground lake were really picturesque.
At times high banks of rubble rose out of the water and it was necessary to slither along on our bellies. In places deeper into the mine calcite deposition had made a hard, translucent shell across the top of these banks and we had to be careful so as not to damage the profuse clusters of soda straws that were forming on the roof. The bats seemed quite perturbed by our arrival in their world and somebody was cheeping angrily from up a crack in the roof. On several occasions they fluttered by and I could just catch glimpses of their chaotic flight. I was surprised by the extent of speleothem formation in the mine. I had believed that under good conditions soda straws could grow at about an inch every hundred years though in remembrance of a winter excursion Jeff and I had done up a storm sewer in Hamilton a few years back, that one inch can be quite drastically stretched.
As we waded through the lake there were tunnels that branched off in every direction, the air seemed dead and the steam that rose from our coveralls clung to us. it made photography quite difficult.
The water was so still and clear in one spot that I was surprised by the ripples when I crawled right into a pool. We continued on along a mound that was just beneath the surface. Dan wandered off to the side into the deeper water and suddenly found himself hip high in really treacherous mud. I had a similar experience moments later and we decided that further exploration would have to be done with an air matress. Up ahead it sounded like a heavy rainstorm and I think that there must have been a spot where the water was pouring in.
My mother worked at Christ Church (Oxford University) and she was the first to bring the Trill Mill Stream to my attention. Pictured here the stream appears deep and slow – coming from under the University into Christ Church Meadow.
At one time the stream actually flowed on the surface, but it was eventually buried. The high walls within which the stream is channeled (just before it reaches the Thames – or the Isis as they call it in Oxford) is because in the 1800s the vapors coming off the water were blamed for causing a cholera epidemic- hence the idea to contain it. Initial exploration of the stream in the 1920s revealed a rotting Victorian punt wedged somewhere within and populated by 3 human skeletons.
Numerous people have traversed this underground waterway, Lawrence of Arabia did it in a canoe and one enterprising adventurer used a sea plane float. Modern urban explorers record their adventure and reveal an arched roof of bricks, the undersides of numerous manhole covers and a passage that makes at least 6 90 degree turns – finally ending in an iron gate – as seen from the outside it is this incredibly archaic industrial age contraption – a plate of metal that is raised and lowered by a wheel.
In Ronald Knox’s book, “The Hidden Stream; the Mysteries of the Christian Faith” he mentions Trill Mill Stream in his introduction in saying that, “if you know the right turning close by the gas works you may thrust your canoe up to the mill-pool under the castle walls where an entrance hardly more dignified than that of a sewer invites you to leave the noise of Oxford behind, and float down through the darkness.”
If I still lived in Oxford, I would certainly have been one of the explorers. I had at one time entertained the idea of using an air mattress. Now that I live in Canada the gloomy tunnels under Guelph will have to suffice – sadly they do not have the history of the Trill mill stream.
Following the release some time ago of my book "Rockwatching; Adventures above and below Ontario", I am pleased to announce the release of my new book "Tamarindo; Crooked Times in Costa Rica". It is a story of opportunity. Edgehill Press is the publisher. (www.edgehillpress.com)