I love it when an area you’ve lived in for years can still surprise you.
I had never heard of Wallingford-Back Mine, in Mulgrave-et-Derry, Québec, until a friend posted a link about it on Facebook last week. But the description sounded really cool – an old, abandoned quartz and feldspar mine about an hour from Ottawa. Open to the public but apparently only really well-known to locals, the mine operated from 1924 to 1972, at which point it was abandoned and left to fill up with water – maybe from a spring, I don’t know for sure.
But once I found out about it, I had to go find it. So yesterday, my friend Robyn and I went in search. It was easy to find – for one thing, it’s at the very end of a road called “Chemin de la mine” off Highway 309. We’d thought there might be some hiking involved, but nope: the road (rough dirt and rocks, deeply potholed, very steep in places – I worried a bit about whether my little Aerio would make it back out) led us straight there.
From the entrance it didn’t look like much. A chainlink fence, ripped open in front of a hole in the hill, surrounded by some trash and graffiti scrawls, and a chewed-up dirt track road that made a loop near the mouth of the mine and branched up the hill beside it.
And, strangely, about sixty feet away there was what looked like a squatter: someone had set up a small tent and put all their stuff in the yard in front of it – including a mountain bike, a hanging wicker seat hung from a tree branch, a few crates and boxes, and a firepit. Oh, and a full drum kit. Weird, but not exactly majestic.
But then we went through the hole in the fence and got a look inside.
The mine hollowed out an entire hill, leaving massive stone pillars to support the arching roof, and the remaining feldspar means that the water is crystal clear and an incredible shade of greenish blue. It’s also deep. Really deep. I don’t think I’d care to estimate how deep. A little way in, the edge just drops off into deep blue nothing.
I haven’t found anything yet to suggest that anyone’s scuba dived here, but someone must have, in the last 40-odd years. . . I wonder what they found. How deep did the mine go? Are there shafts down there? I can’t find any information on it so far.
But before venturing into the (icy, bitterly cold) water, we went for a bit of a scramble/hike around to the top of the mine, to get a good look at it.
And this is what we found: half the hill gone, and a series of arches above the water that might have been 30 metres high or more in spots. There was a fence around the whole thing, but there were also a couple of holes in the fence that were easy to just step through, and it was clear that people walk around up there all the time – there were worn pathways. I get the feeling the fence is there so that the municipality can point at it if anyone gets hurt and say, “we put up a fence, you clearly should have known it was dangerous, it’s not our fault.”
But the area around the top of the mine was just fine to walk around on, never steep or treacherous, and it gave us a sense of the sheer size and scale of the thing. It also gave us a sense of the colour of the water.
Because both of us are also geology fangirls, we picked through some of the loose rocks and found glasslike pieces of clear, smoky and rose quartz, oblong chunks of white, red, and orange fine-grained feldspar with facets so sharp and sheer they reflected the sunlight, and fine sheets of something that might have been porphyritic granite (although some of it had broken in such thin, delicate flakes that I found it hard to think it was granite). We stuck fragments in our pockets and showed them to each other and generally acted like kids with shiny pebbles.
And I had to take the “vertiginous feet” picture, of course.
In some places the rainbow colours of the stone were striking. I found this one deep red boulder – hard to believe the colour was real (and there was some graffiti on it, so I had to look twice), but it was.
Inside the mine, the patterns of yellows and reds and streaks of black made us both think of the Lascaux Caves.
And then it was time to go back down to the entrance, strip down to bathing suits, and screw up our courage to jump into that cold, cold, clear, very deep, very cold, water.
After the initial shock and gasping, we struck out between the massive, arching feldspar columns. The water was brilliantly green where the sun hit it, and deep, strange blue in the shadows. On the roof, patches of reflection rippled and stirred.
We did a circuit of the mine, batting some driftwood out of the way (there were dead trees floating in the water), and of course I started looking at those huge pillars and thinking how cool it would be if it was possible to climb them. They’re sharp, slick, glassy, and angled all the wrong ways. I was wearing my water sandals, so I couldn’t seriously try climbing them, and of course the rock below the waterline was slicked up with algae. But all around the pillars the water just dropped off, too deep to see the bottom even in the clear water, so I figured if I could get up a few feet, or even several, the fall and splash would be safe.
Though you definitely wouldn’t want to climb higher than you were willing to launch yourself off from, and you would want to have checked to be sure there were no ledges under you. I didn’t try it, anyway: I wasn’t wearing my rock shoes (in fact I was wearing sandals) and I did have a GoPro headband that I would not have wanted to knock off. Watching an expensive toy slowly waver its way down through many metres of water would suck.
And I really couldn’t tell, from looking at it, whether the rock would be climbable on gear. (Yes, you’d have to belay from a boat or something – though there are a couple of places in the mine where the base of the rock is dry – and yes, this is an abandoned mine so you’d want to check out how solid the rock generally is, and all that.) It looked. . . sparse, from what I could see, but I didn’t spend a lot of time scouting. The feldspar and quartz are so crystalline that they break in blocks along their lines of cleavage and don’t leave much in the way of fissures or cracks. Though I did see a couple. One pillar, in fact, looked like it wouldn’t be all that hard to climb, if you could find the placements. And the rock could, if the edges were keen enough, be sharp enough to scratch – it sliced my right thumb pad like a paper cut at one point.
Mostly, though, we just swam in the astonishingly blue-green (but did I mention it was cold?) water and watched the reflections on the huge vaulted stone ceiling.
We swam back out after a little over a half hour in the water, crawled up onto the ledge and out into the sunlight, warmed up and had a granola bar and an apple each; then Robyn offered to go back in while I climbed back up around to the top of the mine to get a picture of her in the water, so we could really capture the scale of the place. And then it was time to dry off, hop back in the car, and head back home.