Notes From Underground

Greg Brick explores the sewers and caves that lie beneath the Twin Cities. Sometimes what he finds is beautiful. Sometimes it's just gross.

But it wasn't until 1987, when Brick was pursuing an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Minnesota, that he stumbled across the book that would inspire his greatest passion: Horace Hovey's 1882 caving classic, Celebrated American Caverns. Hovey, a Presbyterian minister and geologist, was famous for his explorations of Kentucky's legendary Mammoth Cave, which features more than 300 miles of passageways, breathtaking limestone formations, and underground rivers. "Hovey was the great figure of 19th-century speleology," Brick explains. "He described things interestingly--wrote about caves that exhale music and sunlight. After reading him, I just thought, there's something I'd like to try."

In short order, Brick began visiting some of the state's best-known subterranean spots, including Mystery Cave, a 12-mile maze of corridors dotted with stalactites and stalagmites in southeastern Minnesota. But while Brick had the caving bug, he also had a problem: no reliable car and a dislike for long trips to prime caving country. So he began exploring manmade spaces in the metro area: everything from storm sewers to old brewery caves to the vast network of steam tunnels underneath the University of Minnesota. Since some of his favorite spots were located in the old milling district near St. Anthony Falls, he rented a cockroach-infested apartment in the neighborhood.

After getting a degree in biology from the U, Brick began taking geology classes. He then enrolled in a master's-level geology program at the University of Connecticut and stayed for two and a half years (Brick wound up spending nearly 18 years in pursuit of a higher education). While there, Brick read The Mole People, a book by Jennifer Toth about the denizens of Manhattan's vast network of underground spaces. Brick and a friend took trips to New York City and made several forays into the city's underworld. As it turned out, Toth's book proved to be an imperfect guide. "There was a lot of truth in it, but there was a lot of bullshit mixed in," Brick says. He was able to locate a few notable subterranean landmarks, however, where he remembers treading over "carpets of crack vials." He also had his one and only run-in with the law, when a subway cop wrote up a trespassing citation. "Somehow, I never did manage to pay that ticket," he says.

Tony Nelson

Brick's affinity for the urban underground sets him apart from traditional cavers, who spend most of their time in country settings, exploring natural spaces. Most of them shun storm sewers and recoil at the prospect of sanitary work. Brick says his peers' distinctions are specious. "The natural caves are all full of animal shit," he observes. "It's just a question of what type of shit you're rolling around in. And it's a matter of dealing with it to get where you need to go. To me, it's just not a big deal." He also points out that while those who explore natural caves may not get Tunnel Fever, they do run the risk of contracting serious illnesses such as rabies and histoplasmosis.

Whether it's done in a natural setting or beneath a strip club, spelunking remains an obscure pursuit. The largest national organization for cavers, the National Speleological Society, boasts a membership of just 12,000 people. The Minnesota Speleological Survey, which is based in the Twin Cities, is lucky to have 20 people at a monthly meeting. "Most people don't go caving, because they think it's scary and dangerous," notes Calvin Alexander, a longtime member of the MSS and a professor in the U of M's geology department.

Still, for those who do cave, the passion runs deep. One member of the MSS purchased more than 300 acres in southeastern Minnesota, just so he could explore a vast network of natural caverns. Many others will spend every weekend for months attempting to find passages into voids that may or may not even exist. And most cavers, Alexander theorizes, are driven by a common impulse: "Most of the mountains have been climbed. The poles have been reached. Caving is one of the few activities left on Earth where, if you are serious, you have a good chance of seeing something that no one has ever seen before--and knowing that you are the first person to see it."

After his stint at UConn, Greg Brick returned to the Twin Cities in the mid-Nineties, more determined than ever to explore Schiek's Cave, a place that very few people had ever been. On and off since then, Brick has systematically explored downtown's storm sewers, looking for a way in. Then in 1999, Brick contacted Peter Sand, a college student who had been making forays into the city's sewers and posting the accounts on a Web site called the Minneapolis Drain Archives ( Sand, Brick discovered, shared his goal.

Soon, Brick and Sand were out prospecting for access to the North Minneapolis Tunnel that would put them in proximity to the cave. That summer, they pinpointed a manhole in the Warehouse District. Satisfied, Brick went home to map out a detailed trip. Late that same night, Sand and three friends made their way to the NMT and, in a harrowing act of either derring-do or simple foolishness, entered the raw sewage, waded a few blocks downstream, and then rode the current down a steep drop. Eventually, the three reached a shaft that led them to Schiek's Cave. One of the three swallowed a mouthful of sewage.

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