Niagara Falls, Ontario

Confluence

Date October 2009
Posted January 2011
Into the depths beneath Niagara Falls
Standing near the top of Horseshoe Falls, for the time being just another tourist, I watched the waters never-ending procession with unease. A gigantic cloud of mist and a terrifying persistent rumble completed an experience like no other I can think of, but one that would later that night be completely surpassed. A few feet away stood a young family: parental faces of contentment, a small child enthralled with the sight before him; all happy to take what was available and not ask for more. They'd already been 'Behind The Falls' today - what more was there to do here besides snap some pictures for the album and head back to the hotel? Together in silence we all stood, watched and listened. It was left to the imagination to wonder what Man must have made of this colossal geographical feature when it was first heard and sighted. One can only hope he wasn't sitting in a canoe at the time.

Niagara Falls and inside the TPC station, courtesy adventuretwo.net, sleepycity.net, pxt.in
L-R: Horseshoe Falls, TPC generating hall in 2007 (sleepycity.net), TPC forebay in 2005 (quantum-x)

With the advent of modern science and the Industrial Revolution it was logical that some would ponder over how humankind might, in some way, harness the power of the falls. Subsequently Niagara Falls became the site of the World's first major hydroelectric generating station. Soon after the Toronto Power House followed, its construction completed in 1906. The plant had been constructed on the Canadian side of the main Horsehoe Falls approximately half a kilometer upstream of the waterfall. Water was let in from the river via a large forebay reservoir alongside the plant building, from where it dropped through huge steel penstocks down into the wheelpits, driving the turbines below.

To return the water back into the river, two 10m diameter 'tailrace' tunnels were constructed beneath the river, merging together into a single giant tunnel and running a total of 610m before opening up into the back of the curtain of the falls. This of course remained even after closure in the 1970s, the plant standing mothballed for several decades until redevelopment work began. In 2004 a small group of adventurers who knew what lurked beneath embarked upon an effort to reach the tailrace junction and it's outfall into Horseshoe Falls. Their trip was a success, and Kowalski recounts his experiences here. The combined efforts of UK drain-busting tag-team JD and st00p together with Brisbane's dsankt followed, although not before siologen had an abortive attempt, one which left him disappointed but (be it for better or worse) still alive.



Not wanting to let what many saw as a last chance slip by, siologen was largely responsible for the modest sized group assembled in the foyer of a luxurious hotel in Niagara Falls. Then minutes later came the demolition of the hotel room, every square inch of floor and bed space covered in rope kit, cameras and miscellaneous junk. The night after this one was to prove that sometimes you can do a lot without having much at all. But for tonight with failure not an option we were carrying plenty of surplus kit.


As the clock tripped over to the early hours of the morning we parked the Dodge under some trees and tipped out onto the muddy asphalt. From the back each collected bags and set off under a clearing star-lit sky towards the river and the sound of the falls. At this time of the night it was reckoned that there'd be little if any activity in the area, and more importantly, an absence of police. The silhouette of the Toronto Power House appeared and our most optimistic hopes were confirmed: the place was totally deserted, save for the very occasional passing car. We'd heard that electric lights in the station had long been removed, and so it stood in complete darkness awaiting any who would dare to enter.

Despite being unused for so long, modifications to the internals of the station only began a few years back. Until that time the generators still stood in a long row and the forebay remained flooded. Unfortunately by late 2006 workers had moved in and the generators were being ripped out, with the turbine hall eventually being completely stripped of it's inner workings and the forebay filled in. This was the scene that presented itself to us as stood in the darkness and surveyed the once-mighty power plant. But there was little time for such musing: a strangely misty air inside and the renewed roar of the falls reaching up from pitch-black voids loosely surrounded by railings and plastic mine tape reminded us that we had a long way to go yet.

If you're still wondering how the workings of a disused hydroelectric powerplant could possibly mesh with the ambitious plans of seven climbers, cavers and drain explorers, then consider the following drawing...

Drawing showing route to Confluence in the TPC tailrace tunnels

A staircase would take us down into the basement, it's dusty solid stairs a luxury when compared to what awaited us below, picked out dark and foreboding in the torchlight. An inch thick steel plate in the middle of an otherwise featureless concrete floor was what we'd been led to believe covered the passageway down into the wheelpits. Shane dug through his bag for the climbing sling, looped it over one corner and yanked on the other end. Such was the weight of the cover, it hardly moved. With three on the task the plate began to slip, eventually moving enough for us to squeeze by.

For most of us, relatively unphased by the prospect of ropework, it was the wheelpit descent that was most worrying. Thirty years of neglect in a damp, cold environment hadn't really done much for the stairs and ladders that negotiated this multistorey pit. Some steps had gone, various sections of railing had disappeared, and from what we could see this was the story all the way down.

By means of these stairs and ladders the majority of the distance down to the tailrace is descended. However, the final test awaits those wishing to set foot in the huge bores beneath. Stepping over bits of rotten wood and other debris we emerged into one of two side rooms, each sitting above a tailrace. Boarded over was a hole in the floor which once housed a further ladder, down onto a gantry suspended from the tunnel ceiling. This has long since been removed or has fallen away, leaving us to wonder just what it must've been like to walk out above the ranging torrents below.



As doubtless all who have ventured down here will admit, it's hard not to consider the fate should one become trapped down below. Forced to sit in hope of an eventual rescue, or attempt to clamber round behind the falls, what would be the preferred action? Would failure and hunger force a leap of despair into the terrifying waterfall? These were scenarios unlikely to fall upon us (so we hoped) for we had arranged a safety contact. But even so all of us were aware that we were going down into something that was unforgiving, to a place where we would literally bathe in the overspray of death's cold grasp. Our safety was far from guaranteed.

We stood, looking down into the cloudy black nothingness, somewhere down below us the damp spacious confines of the tailrace. The roar of the falls had grown ever louder and now it drew us in like an inescapable tractor beam. Around our feet were various fixings and bolts drilled into the masonry by previous visitors - we chose the best two pairs and began to arrange ropes. Mike, harnessed and ready, was first. He swung his legs over the railings and dropped down into the darkness. A minute later and his shouts could not be heard - instead a slack rope was taken to mean all was well.

So picture this: finally your feet touch the damp brickwork, and your eyes begin to take in the enormity of just where you are. Stupidly deep below one of the largest, most powerful and famous waterfalls in the world; a unique location visited by a mere handful of people: those who built and maintained it, and those who dared to venture in afterwards. By now the sound of the falls, as if in warning, had become a deep resounding rumble. We began the short walk to the famous junction tunnel between the two tailraces, barely even stopping, all completely entranced in the faint glow at the end of the tunnel.

Confluence (Toronto Power House tailrace tunnels), Niagara Falls, Ontario (2009) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Pushing towards the curtain the roar increased to an impossible volume, the cold water trapped in the tunnel reaching higher around our legs. At the outfall fallen rocks were keeping this reservoir of infiltrated water inside the tunnel, but should the rockfall collapse or slide out into the falls then the water and all within it would follow, swept down into the back of the plunge pit, itself as deep as the falls are tall. On the left side the tunnel seemed to be suffering harder: every few seconds a blast of spray would lash against the wall with force as hard any mountainous storm I've ever encountered. There was no option but to bear right and climb the rockfall there. Each time the curtain tore inwards the very breath was stolen from my lungs as muscles contracted and icey droplets forced airways closed. Holding my breath I stood at the end of the brickwork and examined the peripheral - wide raging terror on all sides, nothing but relentless, merciless power; a reminder once again of our sheer insignificance in such a vast universe. Ulive's video gives about as good an idea as you'll get without going there yourself.

That feeling of being right there, looking out from the inside of a man-made machine strapped in beneath 5 million horsepower of unstoppable power, is almost undescribable. It's something so unique, so incredible, an experience which quite literally stole my breath. The defining narrative to such a moment belongs to Kowalski, who summed up his own experience far better than I could even if I'd stood there and tried a thousand times:

"Lying below a river that will relentlessly tear into the bedrock until all has been obliterated from Queenston to Erie, this tunnel thirty-three feet in diameter is imprinted into my being forever. A swirling army of red brick millions strong, the eye of a petrified hurricane leading us right into the centre of the stalled but fighting storm that is Niagara Falls. Standing in its back-blast, in a place far deeper and darker than any middling storm sewer, I breathed and drank from the fount of the universe and swam closer to its centre than I ever will again."


Confluence (Toronto Power House tailrace tunnels), Niagara Falls, Ontario (2009) courtesy of adventuretwo.net




In 2010 further work was undertaken inside the power plant, covering various essential sections of the route with steel or concrete. For the unofficial visitor, finding a path down to the tunnels behind the raging falls is now all but impossible. It may be that the redevelopers preserve a small access door somewhere for inspection purposes, and who knows, perhaps a little bit of social engineering will one day allow the intrepid to venture downwards into the wheelpit once again.

This trip couldn't have been done without such a competent group of people on board, appreciation to them all. Additional hat tips for help or inspiration to JD, st00p, dsankt, controleman, Kowalski, q-x and micro.
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