(a fictional Urban Exploration nightmare)
Bob Barrie, known by his on-line handle as CopySix, was itching to go 'urban exploring'. It was late November of 2006 and although cold, the sun was shinning for the first time for what seemed like weeks. Bob picked up the telephone and called his good buddy Patrick Cheung. Patrick picked up on the first ring.
“Hey Rafter-Man, it’s me”, said Bob, using Patrick’s pseudonym. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Yup, let’s do it” Patrick quickly replied.
The conversation immediately turned to the rapid exchange of details all regarding another exploration of the old cold-war radar base located at Edgar, just north of Barrie, Ontario. This massive facility, built in the early 1950’s, contained everything one would expect in a small town; hospital, church, school, recreation centre and of course a small sub-division of houses where the military staff and their families resided. In place of a shopping plaza were two huge radomes which contained the radar antennas. Although residents at the base could get some bare essentials at the ‘Canteen’, they had to drive 30 minutes or so to either Orillia or Barrie.
The cold war was over and the radomes, which served as a landmark visible for kilometres around, were long gone. So were the staff and civilian workers who worked and lived here. The federal government sold the property to the Province of Ontario who had plans for this. The Province had been looking for just such a facility for one of its new mental health programs. The radar base became the Edgar Adult Occupation Centre which offered life and work skills programs for the mentally-handicapped to give them a solid chance of re-integration to society.
“I’m calling JFK for on this one” Bob stated referring to Amanda, the third and newest member of their underground urban exploration group ‘UrbEx Barrie’.
“She’s not going to like the snow” replied Patrick.
Bob knew immediately what he was talking about; “We’ll be careful not to leave tracks where Security can easily see them then.”
“Tell her I’m bringing butter-tarts” Patrick said, knowing Amanda’s weakness for this baked good.
Within an hour, the three explorers were tearing up a side road towards the former radar station in Amanda’s new SUV. Apparently, not only did the butter-tarts motivate Amanda, but also worked on her father to lend her his ‘new baby’. The hill loomed in the distance topped by an extraordinarily tall telecommunications tower now standing in almost the same spot where the radar domes did decades earlier. The vehicle had passed several signs indicating road construction ahead which worried the explorers that perhaps their regular parking spot, just off the county road would be inaccessible. Within a few moments, they had passed a works crew and heavy equipment resurfacing the roadway.
“Looks like we’ll be able to park in the same spot again” Patrick noted.
“Great. I don’t feel like walking too far in the snow.” Bob replied.
With the car parked just off the road on a dirt trail and obscured by the trees, the team started on a practised 5 minute walk through a field to the edge of the base. The maintenance yards were located at this corner of the former base. The group had already discussed that they did not want to go through the garages and workshops here again so they moved along the road towards the Base’s ‘PMQ’s’ or Private Married Quarters. Here, a full generation of children grew up as ‘Base Brats’ in these houses which were built to a standard enviable to civilian residents in the adjacent Township.
The children who lived here not only enjoyed the privilege of using the recreation centre, housing the indoor pool and bowling alley, they were also treated to day-trips to nearby Wasaga Beach by the kindly teachers who staffed the school on base.
Soon, the trio were skirting the overgrown school yard. They were careful not to travel in the open or to close to the front gatehouse where the Security guards spent their days at crossword or reading. Occasionally, the guards would foray out of this comfort for security rounds at the base. There were several recent incidents of vandalism to buildings which resulted in more frequent checks by the guards looking for intruders. All three explorers held vandals and graffiti ‘artists’ in the lowest regard for defacing or destroying property. The group’s motto of ‘Take only Pictures, Leave only Footprints’ was a widely held standard of the urban exploration community.
As the group moved through the property towards the PMQ’s, they could clearly hear the heavy equipment working on the road.
“The road crew sounds really close” Amanda noted.
“Sounds more like a bunch of tanks” Bob said jokingly.
Approximately a half kilometre away, on the far side of the base, Lieutenant Schaffer of the 48 Highlanders light infantry was pouring over orders for ‘Exercise Aggressive Viper 2’. This was a large exercise in which not only his own regiment but that of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and 2 Field Engineer Regiment were taking part.
His Commanding Officer (CO) had been giving directions to modify the training program with less stress on conventional warfare and more emphasis on tactical fighting in built-up urban areas. The abandoned radar station provided a perfect modern ghost town to prepare his soldiers for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and other municipal police forces used the abandoned buildings here for SWAT Team exercises and tactical entry training. Although the owner of the property, the province, had no issues with the army using the base for training, the Lieutenant could still hear his CO stressing quite forcefully not to “blow up or flatten any buildings” during the exercise.
His unit had arrived late yesterday after a short hour and half drive up from Toronto, and had immediately set up tents and a command post for this important exercise. The convoy of trucks and Light Armoured Vehicles (LAV’s) were directed to use an alternate route to the abandoned base due to road work but the tight schedule was still adhered to. The unit’s newly acquired Griffon helicopter was expected at any moment and the exercise would then be underway.
The explorers were already into their fourth house in the PMQ’s. They moved quietly through the upstairs together.
The cold air steamed their breath as they moved down a hallway. They explorers were oblivious to the smell of mold, mildew and rot in the stale air of the house through their masks. The three wore respirator masks not only for the indoor air quality but also as protection against the possibility of exposure to dangerous asbestos insulation.
Peeling sheets of paint hung from the walls like an open scar and the carpets showed remnants of some stubborn plant attempting to put roots down before the winter die-off. It was easy for the explorers to imagine the lives lived in these houses – the walls almost leached these memories out and in the empty halls one could almost hear the echoes of its former occupants.
They were setting up for another round of photographing this delicious decay in a bedroom with the most hideous orange drapes when they heard the low beating sound of a helicopter. Amanda stepped over to the window overlooking the backyard and the forest actively trying to reclaim it. She suddenly stiffened and rapidly retreated from it.
“Guys,” she whispered said, “I think we’re being invaded.”
To the other two, it almost sounded like a beginning of a joke but the look in her eyes told them otherwise.
With a little more stress now noticeable in her voice Amanda whispered again “There are soldiers out there.”
They now quickly worked silently breaking down their tripods, and stowing their camera equipment, flashlights, and respirators in knapsacks. Only after everything was put away did Bob move cautiously towards the window with a mirror in his hand. He crouched below the window and slowly moved the mirror up to give him a view of the outside.
“Oh yeah, we got soldiers”, Bob said. “And I think I just saw a tank moving through the forest. I guess that sound really wasn’t from the road construction crew.”
“We got to move it out of here now.” Patrick said.
“The only way back is back through the base again.” said Amanda.
“I don’t think we have to worry about leaving foot prints on the way out.” Bob said wryly.
The group quickly moved downstairs and after ensuring there was no-one on the street in front of the house, slipped out and straight across the street back towards the maintenance yard. As they were expertly moving through the buildings using as much cover as possible, they all had one thought; the thought of being caught and possibly charged with trespassing or worse – breaking and entering. Since they had never been charged before and had a clean record a trespassing fine might cost them 80 bucks or so – the cost of a cheap dinner and a movie for a couple. Breaking and entering was altogether different. The group made it a point never to pack anything in their gear which could be construed as a tool which could be used for burglary and although they may have ‘assisted’ some doors or windows to open, if a building was tight, they simply would not try to get in. The police would, however, need quite a ‘song and dance’ for them to believe that you were not a vandal or thief and even if convinced, might still prosecute to the full extent for having troubled them.
Bob thought about the remote possibility of having his equipment confiscated and held by the police. His brother Eric had just given him a Canon Powershot for Christmas, Bob’s first SLR camera and possibly the best gift he had ever received. At this thought Bob without realising, drew his knapsack closer.
One part of this urban exploration hobby which attracted so many was the exhilarating thrill and rush of adrenaline experienced when out-maneuvering site security. The chance of being caught is always a possibility and provides some unexplainable level of excitement of going places you’re not supposed to. Today’s trip to the base however, provided a rather unpleasant anxious feeling almost bordering panic.
These and many other thoughts were running through their minds as they were running up to one of the many barracks. The explorers now moved closely along the side of the building and stopped near the corner. Amanda cautiously peeked around the corner of the building and moved back.
“More of them green guys this way” Amanda said to the other two.
“Lets duck in here” Patrick motioned to an open side door to the barracks.
The group moved inside the building and then carefully down the hallway making sure not to step on anything that could make a sound which could be heard by those outside. Patrick led the way to the far end closest to where they entered the property. At the end of the hall, past some furniture debris was the exit. The door’s window was smashed. Most likely with the very rock which was now present and looking very much out of place in the middle of the hallway. Bob now stepped forward and looked out through the hole in the window. Several soldiers, dressed in full combat fatigues were toting rifles at the ready and advancing past the door. Bob belonged to a number of urban exploration community forums like UER, 28 days latter, UEKW, Dark Playgrounds and degGi 5. No-one was going to believe this story. Bob quietly pulled his camera from his bag, focused and slowly depressed the shutter button.
The camera blasted the electronic synthesised sound of a classic camera shutter out of its micro-speaker. The sound almost felt like a thunder clap.
Shit. Bob was sure he muted his camera along with his cell phone before they came onto the property and the camera certainly was muted when he was taking earlier photos. Perhaps the camera menu or a button got toggled in the haste to put the gear way earlier.
There were three soldiers just 20 or so metres away. Their heads all turned towards the sound. The nearest soldier started towards the explorers. Without any direction or discussion, the group spun around and jogged up the hallway towards the exit at the opposite end of building. Over the sound of their hurried footfalls, they could distinctly hear the soldiers yelling something incomprehensible following radio static and chatter.
All three explorers burst out of the door at the far end of the hall and straight into a large group of soldiers who obviously were expecting them.
“Don’t run!” yelled one soldier.
Another soldier stepped forward “Put down your bags and step back into the building.”
“We got lost, we didn’t know we were trespassing” offered Patrick.
“Yeah. We had car problems and must have wandered onto your property” followed Amanda.
The second soldier repeated “Back into the building now please.”
The door was opened and the three explorers were herded into the first room on the right. An expressionless soldier stepped over to the opposite side of the room and faced them. Several more milled about outside in the hallway. What seemed like hours but in reality only about 30 minutes a soldier stepped into the room and their guard snapped to attention and saluted “Sir!”
Obviously an officer, the three explorers thought. The Officer dismissed the soldier and took the same place across the room. He appeared to size up the three nervous individuals and then introduced himself. His uniform bore a name tag ‘Schaffer’.
“My name is Lieutenant Schaffer. You are trespassing on provincial property. We have informed the site security guard that we have detained you and he tells us that the OPP has dispatched a constable who should be attending shortly.”
The Lieutenant paused. Bob strained to make an emotionless face but inside he could almost hear his heart drop into this stomach.
“You people have caused me quite a bit of grief today.” the Lieutenant continued, “My men have only a finite time here today for the exercise and you have disrupted our training schedule. The soldiers here in the hall need to be storming a house held by insurgents at 1330 Hours.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Bob could see Amanda’s face twitching to control a smirk. It sounded almost comical but the Lieutenants face was completely serious. The Officer then turned abruptly and left the room. The explorers could barely hear the Lieutenant mutter “the CO is gonna chew my ass on this one” as he left. The guard immediately returned to the room and took up the same position.
A few moments latter the three of them could hear the creak of a rusty door hinge and a door banging shut. This was immediately followed by the voice of the Lieutenant speaking with someone who must have just arrived but they could not make out any of the words. Then the sound of movement of people in the hall and then an OPP Officer stepped into the room.
“I understand from the army Lieutenant I just spoke with that you folks interrupted an important training exercise today.” the Police Officer stated without introducing himself.
The Officer casually looked at the three, removed a note book from his pocket and proceeded to write in it. The Officer was wearing a heavy winter uniform coat with shoulder flashes and had traded in the highly recognizable Stetson hat for a winter toque.
Bob’s eyes wandered down to the Officer’s name tag. ‘Rush’. There was a name tag theme today. Bob began to think about some of his favourite Rush songs and then tried to chronically order Rush album releases in his head. The Officer broke the silence.“I would like you two to leave the room for a moment while I get some details from your friend here” he jabbed his pen at Amanda and Bob and then pointed towards the door.
The soldier, who was still in the room since the Police Officer arrived, walked across the hall and led Amanda and Bob into another very similar. The Officer then closed the door. Amanda and Bob could hear fairly clearly the Officer ask Patrick who he was and requested that he produce identification. The Officer then used a radio to call in a request for background information on Patrick. As this request was being processed, the Officer asked questions as to why Patrick was on the property. The group had practised what excuses to use and what details to provide on the car trip to the radar base to ensure everyone’s story meshed.
A few moments latter, the Officer’s radio crackled and there was a rapid exchange of incomprehensible codes and police jargon between him and Police dispatch. Patrick was then directed to leave the room and Amanda then brought in for questioning. The same process continued for her and then Bob. At the end of this, all three were gathered and the Officer addressed them.
“It appears that the three of you have not had any trouble with the law. I also understand from site security that it is the policy of the property owner, in this case the Province of Ontario not to request trespassing charges be brought forward on first time offenders.”
That nasty felling in Bob’s gut just went away. The Officer continued.
“I am going to warn you that if you are caught on the property again, charges will be applied. Lieutenant Schaffer indicated to me that it appeared that you had camera equipment in your bags. Should you be caught, your equipment will be seized, declared before a Justice of the Peace and held until the fine is paid or until the conclusion of your trial should you contest. As there is an ongoing military exercise on the property, the good Lieutenant has offered an escort off the site to your vehicle, which I assume is not parked too far away”
The three explorers all nodded and offered apologies to the Officer for having caused such trouble. The Officer then left and exchanged words with presumable the Lieutenant who was waiting in the hall. Shortly after the trio were then led by an escort of soldiers out of the building and down the road to the front gate. Numerous military vehicles were rolling through the streets and the helicopter noisily passed close overhead. At the front gate, the soldiers followed the explorers to the vehicle and waited until they got in and drove away before returning to the base.
Approximately and hour latter and two beers each, the three explorers were sitting at their favourite table at ‘Sticky Fingers’, known for cold beer and hot wings. Amanda was just returning to the table from the washroom and as she approached the table, slapped down a copy of the Barrie Examiner in front of Patrick and Bob. The front page headlines read “Big Military Exercise in Edgar Today”.