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 while Brick and Max have a tendency to quibble over motive, they both have come to regard certain underground realms as private preserves. And both worry that outsiders might vandalize caves or attract a police presence or cause the authorities to further restrict access. In Brick's case, this proprietary instinct sometimes leads to direct action.

Not long after our trip to Satan's Cave, Brick leads me to the mouth of the old Heinrich Brewery Cave on the U of M's West Bank, where there is a locked gate. A few years back, he explains, the Department of Natural Resources installed the gate and a lock to protect the eastern pipistrelle, a rare bat that inhabits the cave during winter months. Periodically, visitors to the cave would smash the lock, so Brick decided to replace it himself. "I don't know if it's selfishness or whatever. Maybe I just want the cave to myself," he says. "And it's not the only time it's happened. I guess I just like having my own little keys to the underworld. I know it's not mine. It's not my cave or my sewer tunnel to lock off, but I do it anyway. Isn't that bizarre?"


Tony Nelson

For our last expedition, Brick has selected the most physically taxing destination yet, a place called Chute's Cave. (Brick is particularly protective of this spot and asks that precise points of entry not be disclosed.) We meet at 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday, not far from an old mill in Minneapolis. Once again, Brick's frequent partner is a no-show. We are accompanied by two other people, however: City Pages photographer Tony Nelson and arts editor Michael Tortorello. Brick has handed me a child's bunk-bed ladder to carry, and he cautions me to be discreet. I have no idea how to be discreet while carrying a bunk-bed ladder on a public street, so I just stick it under my arm. We trundle down the block and no one pays any attention.

To get to the cave, we first hike down to the river, where we wade into the mill. Once out of sight, Brick changes into ratty jeans, old lace-less sneakers, and a light coat. It's a warm day, but Brick has warned us to add layers. The trip to Chute's involves a rugged crawl, and the extra clothes will help prevent bruising. After reaching an inner recess of the mill, Brick puts the ladder in place and one by one we climb up and into a maze of small, connected chambers. Eventually we reach a wall where there is a craggy opening. Waist-high, it is just big enough for a human being to fit through. Nelson has brought along a fair amount of bulky (and expensive) camera gear to photograph the cave. It's clear right away that the tripod will have to stay behind.

Brick first pioneered this route into Chute's Cave on a solo mission in 1990, which makes him the first person to document a visit in 81 years. Since then he has come back dozens of times. Now and then he brings visitors, but oftentimes they balk at the point of entry. "One guy who accompanied me years ago had been to Vietnam. Once he got up here, he said he thought he might start having flashbacks if he went inside. I don't know if he thought some VC would bayonet him if he went through that crawlway, but he was sweating like a pig."

With Brick leading the way, we pile face-first through the opening. As we belly crawl over the jagged rocks, there are the inevitable birth-canal jokes. In spots, it seems impossibly tight. As a novice, I am astounded that any person in reasonable mental health would pioneer such a route unaccompanied. Heavy limestone rocks loom overhead. My thoughts turn to Floyd Collins, the most famous caver of all time. Collins, a skilled spelunker, was deep within Kentucky's Sand Cave in 1925 when a rock crumbled from the ceiling and pinned him by the foot. Over the next two weeks, he suffered an unimaginably wretched death, as some 20,000 onlookers, journalists, and hapless rescuers watched from above. In death, Collins endured further miseries. His body was initially displayed in a glass coffin as a tourist attraction, only to be stolen and then recovered, minus a leg, in a nearby river. I don't want to be another Floyd Collins. The only thing that keeps me from panic is the knowledge that, as the third person in line, I'm less likely to be blindsided by an unstable skull crusher.

It is, Brick tells us, a 130-foot crawl to the cave proper. I can't tell; the route is like a corkscrew, and I can't see anything more than 10 feet ahead. At the midway point, we come to an elegant, naturally sculpted flowstone formation dubbed the Medusa. There is a constant sound of dripping, and little pools of water have collected on the rock ledges. The dripping water creates formations as it deposits minerals on the rocks. They glisten in varying hues of orange and red. They look soft as pillows.

It is a long, slow haul. Then, one by one, we finally emerge into the most decorated cave in the Twin Cities. On one side of the triangular chamber, there are a half-dozen enormous, decaying wooden pillars that have sunk into the ground and are supporting nothing. The pillars were installed following a partial collapse of the cave in 1881, which also brought down part of the street above. Massive slabs of limestone that came down during the collapse sit in the center and rear of the rotundalike cavern. They are covered in flowstone, which looks like melted wax. Scrambling atop the pile, Brick points out one odd little formation after the next, named for what they look like, not what they are: cave pearls, bacon rinds, fried eggs.

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