Interview with Ontario Abandoned Places

I haven’t been active on the site so it was very nice to be included in the interviews. Following is my own interview. Follow the link to read the other interviews with Ontario women urban (and rural) explorers.

Thrill of the XXploration – ThatGRRL – Link is 404 on the site now so I am just adding the domain link.

Hello. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I began looking at abandoned houses as a kid. My Mom, my Grandmother’s sister and I explored an old house together more than 30 years ago. I still have the key I found in the front door. These days I live in Barrie but I was actually from Toronto originally. Mainly I see derelict farmhouses around Ontario. I like any old building (especially old banks and cemeteries) with old stone or iron architecture.

I watch for ghost signs and would like to find a location for rooftopping but there aren’t so many tall buildings in rural areas. I like to learn more about the architecture itself and the history of buildings but I only know a little so far.

My second camera was a Panasonic. I still think it captured colours better than my other cameras. The camera I use now is a FujiFilm Fine Pix SL300. I picked it because it had the most zoom I could get at the time. I always look at the zoom first because I like to narrow in on features of the building without having to be close. Also, zoom lets me get in to see places up close when I can’t physically get close.

Describe your integration into the community, were you accepted by the males, did you experience any stereotypes or prejudices because of your gender?

I’ve never had trouble fitting in but I’m not a group person so much. I have met men and women through exploring. I began a group for Ontario explorers on Flickr about 9 years ago. Through the group I’ve met other women explorers (2 I met in person). I’ve met exploring men too and trade information about places with several people I have met online and through the Flickr group. Most of the time I explore with my Mother (70 now) but still likes to explore and find rocks and wildflowers for her garden.

I think it is easier for women to explore as we aren’t seen as a threat or up to something the way men may be. I’ve been stopped by people who were suspicious or concerned but I’ve never had any trouble. I just tell them the truth “I really like old buildings” and most of the time people will take the time to tell me all they know about the history of the place. I’ve even had people offer me return visits and ask if I’d like to pick apples from the trees on the property.

Have there been any unpleasant experiences from the community based solely on your gender?

I haven’t had any unpleasant experiences. Everyone I’ve met or talked with has been equally interested in the old places and preserving them. The only time I’ve been doubtful about someone else was when I wondered about their motives (scavengers or vandals). One of the nice experiences I’ve had was being a scout for filmmakers three times, even being credited on the films when they were completed.

Do you have any particular group of friends whom you explore with, has your experience in the hobby formed any long lasting friendships with such a group of people or so you still find yourself very much solo exploring? Do you have any role models, people that you’ve looked up to either from their photographic skillset or their explorations?

I’m not a great mixer socially but I do keep in touch with people online and I’ve joined as many local and Ontario based groups as I find. I haven’t been as active in my own groups the past year and I miss that.

I like seeing other photographers, not just urban explorers but anyone who photographs and finds a unique way to present what they have seen. A clear photo is just the beginning you can get into night photography, re-photography, rooftopping and etc. The photographs last longer than actually being there. They remind you of what you saw and show you what you missed while you were there.

Do you take precautions for your health such as a respirator, steel toe boots? Are you ever concerned with the long term heath effects?

I don’t explore tunnels and such and I seldom enter inside the old places (partially not wanting to trespass that far and partly out of thoughts of safety). The main issue for me have been animals. Birds in particular have been a hazard. But, I’ve also walked into the path of beehives and had one caught in my hair. I could hear it buzzing but did not really want to find it with my fingers. One of the grossest experiences I have had was stepping on a frog in the long grasses. I’m still not sure I actually did but it always gives me a squicky feeling.

Other than animals we did get the car stuck in deep mud once and my first solo exploration I lost my car keys and had to go back looking for them.

The stupidest thing I do is wear the wrong footwear. I know I should wear boots and I will even bring them along but seldom actually change into them. I wear Croc knockoffs and have yet to be unlucky, not that I think I’m exceptionally lucky, just have not been unlucky so far.

How does a typical exploration work for you? Do you print out maps the night before, do you use a GPS to do a round route, are you highly organized or a last minute planner?

I’m mainly solo or with my Mother. It works out nice cause I navigate and she drives while we both keep on the look out for interesting places. In the car we debate on whether or not a place is actually abandoned. That’s interesting because there have been mistakes made. I prefer houses which are obvious ruins/ abandoned.

I always bring my camera, a map book and sometimes I have an idea of where I want to look or a location I have heard about. Mostly it is unplanned and yet we usually will find at least one abandoned house – usually more than one.

Have you ever been caught by the police or property owner, what was the outcome, were you able to talk yourself out of the situation?

I have been stopped by security and property owners a few times. I’ve never had a confrontation. I really think it helps being a woman and being older.

I won’t break and enter. For me this means I won’t push open a fence but if the fence is already open and shows a path where others have walked through, then I will go ahead and take it. I’m a bit on the timid side when it comes to deciding how far to go to gain entry. I understand the concerns of property owners and there is the chance someone will actually live (and be at home) in some of the run down farmhouses.

My weirdest experience was knocking on the door of the trailer parked on the property to ask permission to photograph the ruins of a farmhouse. The man who answered just wore a robe and wasn’t quite sure what to make of me. I was pretty sure he had been online looking at porn. I didn’t really think about it and put it together until I was finished taking photos and writing down a note about where I was at the time.

Many explorers have an ethic of ‘take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints’. Do you believe in this ethic or is it a laughable concept?

I’m not on the side of graffiti at all. I have taken some objects from abandoned houses, I’m not a complete purist. But, I don’t move things around (posing them for photographs) and the objects I have taken were a key from long before I thought about ethics and once I took a bowl I found far outside the house as I was walking back. The amazing thing about the bowl was how long it took to get the stink of rotting grass and mud out of it.

The only things I take and don’t feel wrong about are garden plants. I have several which I have dug up and transplanted into my garden. Without digging them up they would eventually be lost to weeds. I like giving them a new place to live, thrive and be appreciated.

There was a group called Urbexers Against Vandalism but they became discouraged and closed the group. The website and Facebook groups are gone. I kept the graphic and remade it for my own site. I think it is an important ethic as it concerns keeping locations for others to see and respecting the property owners.

The hobby is becoming more mainstream and more publicized. Is this a good thing or a bad thing in your opinion, should it remain a secret hobby?

I don’t think it should be seen as something deep, dark and secretive but I don’t like to see it being treated too casually either. I’d rather explorers be people who appreciate the history of the locations (and have some care for the property and the property owner) than just visit with the idea of scavenging, destroying, or having some grand adventure taking artsy pictures.

Publicity can bring some respect and increase knowledge about what explorers actually do. But, it also brings more of the thrill seeking types out for the sake of being trendy. This ruins it for the real explorers because there are accidents, theft and damage which makes us all look disrespectful and up to no good.

I was a member of my local historical society. It gave me a feeling of being legitimate or being able to explain my interest as a love of history and architecture.

Do you use social media, have any websites or sell prints online, etc?

I have not gotten into selling prints. I may in the future. I’d actually consider putting photographs together as an Ontario calendar. I have begun my own site this year, it’s not ready for public viewing yet (though it is online as I go along putting it together).

WreckyRatBird

The media brings more attention to urban exploration but doesn’t always explain what it is so well. Also, perception is in the reader’s mind. Some think we are thrill seekers, some think we are vandalizing locations or just interested in breaking into places to see what we can get. I think the people who view the photographs we take can enjoy them and that is a nice thing about social media. I do worry about the people who take up exploring with intentions other than ethical exploring and documenting history.

What are your thoughts on secrecy and keeping places private, do you tend to not disclose places to others when asked or do you share with others?

I try to be careful but nothing is 100%. If you pass along information to someone you can’t know what they will do with it, who they may pass it along to and what their actual intentions are. When I visit a house I usually go back or at least watch for it the next time I drive by. It really does give me a sadness to see one of them gone. They can’t ever come back. Yet, I don’t blame property owners who demolish them or developers who buy the land and build new. We can’t keep everything but I like to see them standing, weathering yet still here a part of the world.

How long do you see yourself continuing in this hobby, do you see a potential age where you might no longer continue or can we expect to see you out exploring with your adult children when you’re in your 60’s?

I’m turning 50 this week. I think I will still be photographing old buildings for as long as I can still get around to see them.

(Editor: Wow, I thought you were in your 30’s. Congratulations!)

 

How to Safely Engage in Urban Exploration

You can be an urban explorer safely. But, it means setting limits on how far you go when you are exploring. You will also need to buy some extra gear and be prepared to carry it around.

Let’s be upfront, urban exploration is not safe. It’s not a safe, clean and tidy hobby. There are dangers and risks involved: animals, holes, damaged buildings, drains, chemicals, police, and so on. Of course, the risks all depend on where and how you are exploring.

You can be an urban explorer and take less risks, play safe. I tend to be this way myself. I have some admiration for those who investigate drain tunnels, sewer systems, and infiltrate buildings and places past the point of ‘staff only’ and ‘no trespassing’ signs. It’s jut not for me.

So, play safe if you want to but understand you will have to set limits on how far you go and how much you see.

You’re also going to need to spend some money on extra gear like better footwear, flash lights and exploring clothes.

Of course, you also need to read up on trespassing laws and bylaws in your area. If you really want to be safe you need to find and contact the property owner and get real permission for your exploring there.

The Risks of Exploring Dangerous Places

Some people call it urban spelunking, because it’s like climbing around in caves – in the city.

You need a lot of the same gear too if you’re going to go inside industrial sites, drains, subways, bridges, tunnels, sewers, rooftops, and derelict places where the floor could give in, there could be chemical or biological waste and so on.

Urban Exploring Gear

How much gear you need depends strongly on how dirty you plan to get exploring.

I explore old farm houses in rural Ontario, mainly. I bring along my camera, a map book and I usually stash a pair of sturdy boots in the car. I wear clothes I can move in and wash easily. I don’t tend to walk through much, other than tall grass and weeds. But, I have run into territorial birds and I had a bee stuck in my hair that buzzed around for what seemed ages before it found it’s way out (without stinging me!).

If you are exploring mine shafts, tall buildings, grain elevators:

Rock climbing gear.

If you are exploring tunnels, drains, sewers:

Portable gas detectors, oxygen monitors, or handheld air quality testers. Portable SCBA units or emergency air canisters.

If you are exploring underground or buildings/ places with asbestos or black mould:

P-95 or better air respirator.

If you are exploring unstable environments like unstable buildings and abandoned mines:

Hard hat. OSHA approved training in confined spaces.

If you don’t understand the gear or know how to use it, get that information and training. Don’t become an urban exploration statistic.

Trespassing: Where do you Stand?

Urban explorers have their own rules about where to draw the line on entering property they want to explore.

Some explorers literally will go anywhere. But this is not the standard, or the theme which urban exploration goes by. Urban exploration has a motto: take only photos, leave only footprints. Urban explorers are not vandals, scavengers for vintage house parts and they do not spray graffiti around. Also, urban explorers do not break and enter.

Instead of cutting a fence and urban explorer will look for access to the site which does not involved breaking or cutting anything. We might crawl under a fence, enter through a hole someone else has already left or walk past signs stating ‘no trespassing’. It’s a fine line, a small distinction but there are some ethics to urban exploring. Also, a pride in not crossing the line.

Urban exploration is about exploring, not causing damage to property (or upsetting property owners) by stealing, harming or leaving garbage of our own at the site.

Read more about trespassing laws in your own province or state. You should have the right information for your location and situation. In general, you are trespassing if you are on private property without permission.

This means you can take photos from the street, the sidewalk, the pathway, behind the fence… and be perfectly safe from trespassing. In cases like this it is really nice to have a digital camera with a lot of zoom.

Some Urban Exploration Links to Get Started With