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Alberta Book: Photographs by George Webber

As an urban explorer who holds a love for urbex photography, I am continually on the lookout for works published by professional photographers. My wife and I often find ourselves at the nearby Indigo/Chapters store as she is an avid bookworm who easily manages to read at least 3-4 novels a month. While she browses I always end up gravitating towards the photography/fine arts section to see what’s new. I then quickly glance through the local interest section which generally has few titles that peak my interest. However, on one of our recent “book dates”, I came across a photography book by George Webber simply called Alberta Book. I must admit that I’ve never heard of Mr Webber but the cover photo certainly caught my attention.

The book contains over 200 color photographs of Webber’s work compiled over 40 years of photographing and exploring the many forgotten Alberta towns that dot the Canadian prairies. An abundance of pictures depicting deteriorating signs, abandoned buildings, an…

Derelict Harvest: Hazards of rural exploration Part 3

image source Derelict Harvest

Entering any derelict abandoned building has the potential for serious injury or death. Every once and a while you’ll come across a newspaper article detailing the untimely death of an urban explorer. While rural explorers like us tend to gravitate towards homes far off in the “boonies” instead of large industrial sites where most of these deaths occur, rural exploration has its share of hazards as well.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when exploring.

First and foremost, remember you’re in an isolated rural environment. Property owners in rural areas often take measures into their own hands when dealing with trespassers near their homes, vehicles or farm machinery. Avoiding abandoned homes with working farms nearby or properties where farm machinery is kept, will reduce your chances of being confronted.

Many rural homes have wells or septic tanks that might not be covered. Tall grass may obscure openings to wells that could potentially be very deep. In our personal experiences we’ve come across several properties with open wells. Even when covered, the top may be rotting away under the elements and simply stepping on it could cause a collapse. Tall grass often hides other potential hazards such as metal scraps that cause cuts or twisted ankles, boards with nails that lie in wait to be stepped on (which has happened on numerous occasions) as well as bits of barbed wire ready to pierce skin and tear clothing. Rusty nails and barbed wire equal a Tetanus shot, so be careful.

Before entering any home I always take a moment to visually scan the room I’m about to step into. It gives me an opportunity to look for any potential dangers inside. Does the floor have holes in it? Has the floor partially collapsed? Is the floor slanting towards the center of the home? Are the door frames crooked? Slanted floors and crooked doorways are often signs that the main support beam is giving way and the house is slowly collapsing in on itself or the house may be literally spreading outwards on its foundation. I’ll also look at the ceiling and see what state it is in. Have holes rotted through the ceiling? Has the plaster or wood paneling on the ceiling partially collapsed? Not only does this give me an idea on whether or not I should be walking underneath it, but it also gives me an idea of how structurally sound the room is (if there is one) right above it. For example, in one home the plaster on the kitchen ceiling had fallen exposing the black rotted underside of the room above it. Having explored the house, I then traveled upstairs to the bedroom located just above the kitchen. Peering in, the floor appeared to be solid enough. The wood flooring looked a little water damaged but showed no visible signs of rot. Knowing the condition of the floor from being in the kitchen I choose not explore it. These types of rooms are potential traps waiting for unsuspecting explorers to enter them.

image source Derelict Harvest. 
What is in that trunk? I'll never know as this room wasn't safe to go into. The floor is collapsing and forming a "sinkhole" just to the right of the trunk!

Sagging floors that feel spongy under your feet as you walk on them are rotten. You take a chance with each step that you’re going to fall through. Many old homes also have trap doors leading to the basement or crawlspace. Often these trap doors are left open, the doors removed, and can sometimes be partially covered by such things as rolled up carpets, boards or other things that make it appear as if there is solid ground when it is not. Remember to always look where you’re stepping which is easy to forget when your focus is on the discovery or your next photograph.

image source Derelict Harvest
In this image the floor has sank almost 3 feet towards the center of the room. 

Stairs present another challenge to the rural explorer. Every time I go up a flight of stairs there is always a little bit of apprehensiveness. Like floors, stairs that are visibly rotten or spongy underfoot are signs that you shouldn’t be going up them. More often than not, stairs to the second floor have the basement stairs directly underneath them. If they do, you may be able to inspect the underside of the staircase before going up. If you’re really determined to get up those stairs, try to step as much as you can on where the tread (the step) meet the stringer (the side of the staircase) as this will most likely be the most solid spot. Keep in mind, falling through a stairway makes for a long way down, especially if basement stairs are underneath them! Basement stairs are always “iffy”. As homes begin to collapse, basement stairs will often begin to spread apart causing the treads to separate from the stringers. What appears to be solid step may only be held in place by a nail tip on one side or, as I’ve seen, may simply be floating as they are only attached on one side of the stringer only. This is practically impossible to see when standing at the top of the staircase.

image source Derelict Harvest. 

Of all the homes we’ve explored, I’ve only had the experience of going through a floor once. One leg only and up to the hip! In retrospect, it could have been avoided. The floor in the room was covered in vinyl which gave it an appearance of being more solid than it actually was. My mind was telling me there couldn’t possibly be any rot in the floor as water would not have been able to get through the vinyl covering. I was quickly reminded that my logic was flawed as my leg went through and my tripod with camera attached went flying. If I would have taken my time, I would have felt the spongy floor underneath my feet.

Exploring any home is about calculating the risk of injury vs the reward of discovery or snapping a good picture. It’s really how comfortable you are in your decisions and abilities. We’ve passed up many homes that were simply a “Nope” despite looking like an awesome explore. Saying that, I’ve also been in and explored a home where half of the two storey home was literally sinking into the ground giving any fun-house a run for its money!

Avoid becoming “Patient Zero”!

Abandoned places are full of potentially serious diseases and other health hazards. Any kind of respiratory protection that covers the nose and mouth is helpful. You can search google or YouTube for masks recommended by urban explorers. However, even a simple dust mask from the hardware store can help. There is a tendency to touch and look at things that we find in abandoned homes. Keep fingers away from your face, eyes and mouth. Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer in your car to use after exploring. A few of the big things to keep in mind are the following:

Black mold. Many rural homes are full of black mold which can lead to all sorts of health problems.

image source Derelict Harvest

Rodent droppings! Hantavirus is a potentially fatal airborne illness spread most commonly by deer mice which affects the lungs and respiratory system. This can happen when in contact with rodent dropping or urine. We’ve been in homes where the mice are literally scurrying around you as you walk through!

Pigeon droppings. Pigeons have been associated with a variety of diseases. These diseases are caused by a fungus that grows in pigeon droppings and are transmitted to humans by airborne fungus spores. That being said, many abandoned homesteads are literally wall to wall pigeon poop!

image source Derelict Harvest. 
Nearly stepped on a beehive when I entered this room!

Animals love abandoned home. Skunks love to live under homes, owls and vultures nest in closets and attics, cows and deer occasionally wonder in as well. Just be aware of your surroundings and give wild animals their room!

Expect the occasional bee hive as well as spiders. I once entered an abandoned home and as soon as I got through the door I noticed the room before me was covered from ceiling to floor in spider webs and their inhabitants. That house was a “Nope” for me.

Which brings me to my final point. Most abandoned homes stink! Whether it’s Ode of skunk or cat urine, or heaps of pigeon poop, be prepared for the smell. Sometimes it hits you like a brick wall!

All abandoned explores have the potential for injury. Taking the time to identify potential hazards reduces the risk of getting hurt. Curiosity of what may lie in a room or the chance to get a good picture is not worth getting hurt over.

Further reading:
Derelict Harvest: Rural exploration, legalities and a Code of Conduct Part 1
Derelict Harvest: The method to our madness Part 2
Derelict Harvest: Hazards of rural exploration Part 3