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.

Not surprisingly, city officials frown on excursions into the sanitary sewers. Rick Rakow, a foreman with the Minneapolis sewer department, was shocked when he learned of Peter Sand's trip down the NMT and is quick to warn of the risks. "That was extremely dangerous, and they should have never done that. They could have died," says Rakow. While city workers venture into the sewers on a daily basis, Rakow explains, there are a host of dangers. In the sanitary system, decaying feces and vegetable matter produce both methane and hydrogen sulfide, gases which, in sufficient doses, can be fatal. "You can go in there, and the air will be perfectly normal. But as soon as you step into the water, you stir that stuff up. The gas is released, it displaces the oxygen, and then you don't have a prayer." In recent years, the department has become more reliant on remote cameras for their inspections. When repairs need to be made, workers typically bring hydrogen-sulfide and carbon-monoxide sensors.

Brick, who insists he is vigilant about air quality, acknowledges that his adventures can be perilous; his closest brush came a few years back, when he and a companion were prospecting for a sewer entry. They came across a manhole covered by a 200-pound, hexagonal lid. "Whenever you see one of those big lids, you know there's some goodies down there, a big chamber or void," he explains. After prying the lid open with a claw hammer, Brick began his descent into the deep shaft. Partway down, the old metal ladder rungs began to crumble. Just as he was preparing to resurface, his companion dropped the lid. It crashed to the bottom of the pit, hitting Brick's shoulder along the way and nearly taking him down with it.


Tony Nelson

After our journey through the NMT, Brick and I plan a trip to Satan's Cave on Nicollet Island. The name is irresistible. At least to me. It is just four days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, and our planned entry point is just across the river from the Federal Reserve Bank. John, who is jumpy about doing anything that might arouse suspicion during this tense time, bows out. Brick is less worried but urges a little extra caution on the approach. "That bin Laden is giving cavers a bad name," he complains.

After a rendezvous at the Nicollet Island Inn's parking lot, Brick discreetly leads me to an open manhole by the river's edge and we quickly descend into a small pit. At first it appears we are in a dead-end chamber, but Brick shoves aside a hunk of fallen rock to a reveal a small opening. He plunges into the void headfirst. Unlike our trip under downtown, this feels less like hiking through sewage and more like spelunking. After belly-crawling our way through a few tight passages, Brick leads the way to a long, egg-shaped, brick-lined tunnel that, for the most part, is dry. We walk, bent over, until we reach the north end of the island. We slither through a tight hole and find ourselves in Satan's Cave.

The sandstone chamber is roomy enough, with a ten-foot ceiling. And by the looks of it, Satan's minions like to party. The space, which was once used for growing commercial mushrooms, is littered with empty beer cans. Still, Brick acknowledges, it doesn't quite live up to its name or its legend: "If I ask people if they want to come with me and walk through some old tunnels, it's, 'I'll pass.' But if you say, 'You wanna go to Satan's Cave?' people will say, 'Cool, let's go!'" On the far wall, three devil heads have been carved in the sandstone and hold votive candles in their mouths. Brick lights the candles. I sit down. It is pleasantly cool, and the floor of the cave is covered with fine, white sand--worthy of a Caribbean Beach. I feel like taking a nap.

In recent years Satan's Cave has attracted not only occasional partiers, but also a new generation of loosely affiliated urban explorers, referred to as the infiltration movement. Unlike Brick and traditional cavers, infiltrators place an emphasis on venturing into forbidden zones for the express purpose of violating the prohibition. "It's almost like a new MTV extreme sport. We call it action squadding," says "Max Action," the 24-year-old founder of an urban adventure group in Minneapolis called the Action Squad. Max, who began exploring storm drains as a kid in Burnsville, has visited a number of Brick's haunts--including Satan's Cave and the U of M's steam tunnels--and posts accounts of the trips on his Web site (

"[Brick's] just very into the historical thing, and he almost scorns the idea of being into this for any thrills or adrenaline, which is important to most of us," Max says. "I like risk. I like getting into places at night where I'm not supposed to be."

"To me, that's just a nuisance," Brick counters. "The difference is between people who come from a caving background and people who come from a trespassing background. A lot of cave work is boring. You do a prospecting trip, then you come back and you do some digging. You know, that's boring to a lot of these point-and-click kids. They're not willing to put in the back-breaking effort."

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