Urban explorer: Michael Cook

How one man lets people view Toronto in new and unexpected ways

Toronto, Ontario // Age: 28

Who is this guy in the headlamp and hip waders disappearing into a manhole in the middle of Toronto? And what’s he up to? In a word, Michael Cook is “draining.” That is, he’s heading down to explore the eerily beautiful subterranean network of storm sewers that stand, like an uninhabited second city, beneath the hum of urban life.

More than two decades after the first stories of “urban spelunkers” appeared in magazines like Wired, a true global subculture is in place, alerting been-there-done-that adventurers to a parallel universe of unexplored terrain just outside our back doors. And Cook—a University of Toronto geography grad—has become one of its high priests.

Increasing numbers have found their way to Cook’s website—VanishingPoint.ca—and the mesmerizing photographs therein. Utility tunnels evoking Soviet-era missile silos. Sewer junctions that look like the chambers of a heart. Cavernous tailraces from hydroelectric plants.

Cook has also explored above-ground frontiers like construction cranes and the remnants of defunct nuclear plants—like any other terrain of exploration, the urban world has its thrills. But there is a high-minded dimension to these shenanigans as well. Draining is urban geography, revealing hints of what a place was like before we tamed it (storm drains often follow the routes of former rivers). It has an archival function: Cook routinely posts historical maps and construction details that allow people to look at the city in unexpected ways. It’s even a form of political journalism. In a recent essay, for example, Cook critiques the CN Tower’s new EdgeWalk attraction.

Drainers are the spiritual descendents of computer hackers (the white-hat kind): For both, the challenge is in finding a way in. And as with hacking, it’s not necessarily strictly legal. In April of last year, Cook and a Montreal compatriot were arrested after an alarmed citizen spotted them dropping suspiciously down a manhole. They were charged with mischief.

This profile is part of our Top 30 under 30 feature.