Guelph - I've visited this town many times over the years. I love its quaint old downtown and the country feel of the Saturday-morning farmers market. I've enjoyed films and fine dining at the Bookshelf, taken in the hot, juicy musical acts at the Hillside Festival and eaten buckets of ice cream at the Boathouse Tea Room by the banks of the Speed River.
I thought I'd seen it all.
But today I stumble off the Greyhound bus armed with rubber boots, foam knee pads and three flashlights. My brother Mick greets me cheerily at the terminal, but I'm kind of nervous.
He and I are about to partake in his favourite urban hobby: draining. It's the fine art of exploring underground storm sewers, and I'm having second thoughts.
Mick is an experienced caver, so this is no big deal for him, but me? I'm a coward. I'm compelled to quiz him.
"What about rats?"
"They don't frequent storm sewers," he tells me.
"There can be bad air in confined spaces, but gases are mainly found in pipes for raw sewage."
"Couldn't we get lost?"
"Guelph's system is a fairly simple grid."
"What about floods?"
Mick suggests not going draining when the snow is melting or on rainy days. Today the snow is deep, the temperature well below freezing.
"Only south of the border."
"Is this illegal?"
We park near the entrance to the drain system and Mick adds his knee pads, caving helmet and yet another flashlight to my backpack.
We wade into a little creek and slip into the mouth of a 5-foot-tall cement tunnel, splashing a dozen metres in before stopping to don our gear and hang flashlights around our necks. Mick looks very professional in his red helmet.
The water is shallow, the darkness and silence somehow sacred; it's warm, well above freezing. I'm quite in awe. My inclination is to whisper, but Mick's voice booms and echoes. For him, this is familiar territory. Our flashlights play on the walls, illuminating the damp space that disappears in darkness around a bend.
At a fork we scramble up a sharp, low-ceilinged incline. Soon the floor levels out again and the height of the tunnel increases.
When we turn our flashlights off for a moment, the drain isn't pitch black; there's a dim light in the distance, and we head for it. About 10 feet above us is a manhole cover layered in frost.
Mick pulls a tiny dentist's mirror from his pocket and squeezes his bulky frame up the metal ladder. He pokes the mirror through a hole in the cover. This is a comic-book moment. "Yup," he says, surveying the outside world, "looks like Waterloo Avenue."
As we leave a newer tunnel of corrugated steel and enter the oldest part of the system, we're forced to crawl on hands and knees over dry areas and waddle on our haunches through the water.
Mick examines the stalactites hanging from the rough-hewn stone ceiling. Under natural conditions, these calcite formations caused by dripping water grow at a rate of an inch every 100 years, so Mick estimates this tunnel is over 150 years old. I'm a little dubious and imagine that at that time Guelph consisted of fewer than a dozen houses.
On our way back, I notice how nimble my brother is. He manages to skirt a deeper basin of water by skilfully negotiating a narrow ledge. When I try, I get yet another soaker. It's the fate of a novice drainer to be permanently wet.
Finally, in the distance, the light at the tunnel's entrance signals that it's time to remove our gear.
What an amazing experience. Mick and I have toured the dark, mysterious underbelly of Guelph.