Urban cavers fight over turf and free speech

How an exploration dispute between academic Greg Brick and Action Squad's Gabe Carlson became a vicious legal battle

"For the first 10 years, it was like an empty world," says Brick. "You gotta put yourself in my shoes. I've been caving here for 10 years. Nobody else is doing this. And now all of a sudden you have these people show up and start their own websites and start acting like they're experts. It's like, who are you guys?"

For Gabe Carlson, the allure of the underground had nothing to do with science. His inspiration for exploring was seeing the movie The Goonies. Growing up in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities, he entertained himself by finding his way onto rooftops, into storm drains, and into the attic and bomb shelter at his grandmother's house.

Years later, as a student at the U of M, he expanded the adventures with his friends to the steam tunnels and Mill District. At the time, they didn't have a name for what they were doing.

Now working on a Ph.D. in geology, Greg Brick has been exploring the underground since the '80s. Below: Brick's map from his trip to the Ford mines.
Tony Nelson for City Pages
Now working on a Ph.D. in geology, Greg Brick has been exploring the underground since the '80s. Below: Brick's map from his trip to the Ford mines.
Greg Brick, 2001.
Tony Nelson
Greg Brick, 2001.

"There was no reason for it, but it was an activity that we actually got together and did. Like, 'Hey, let's go out Adventure Squadding,'" says Carlson. "It was a decent way to pass the time. It was more interesting than the college bar scene."

After years of exploring, Carlson found an online zine called "Infiltration" dedicated to the urban exploring scene in Toronto. It wasn't until then that he realized he was actually part of a vast network of people all over the world doing the exact same activity.

Carlson decided to start his own website to record his trips and connect with other explorers. He called the site "Action Squad." Because much of what they did involved illegal trespass, he and his friends came up with aliases to use online; Carlson dubbed himself "Max Action."

The Action Squad explored all over the Twin Cities: Cobb's Cave in St. Paul, the abandoned Hamm's Brewery, inside the Wabasha Street Bridge. They chronicled the trips, which they called "Missions," on the website.

The philosophy behind Action Squad is hard to articulate, says Carlson. Part of the fun was the historical context of where they were going, but the missions were also about the excitement of being in places they shouldn't be, and they'd often use photos without permission to illustrate the trips on their website.

"We never pretended to be scholars," says Carlson. "We'd blatantly just go steal picture from the Minnesota Historical Society database, or whatever we wanted. We had that kind of punk-rock attitude about it."

Among their greatest triumphs were the Ford mine missions. Carlson had heard the mines were all but impossible to access, but he wanted to see for himself, so he and a fellow explorer rode their bikes to the plant one October night in 2000. They climbed over a barbed wire fence and attempted to sneak through the woods, but they were making too much noise. Fearing someone would hear them, they turned back and decided their best option was to simply ride as fast as they could past the security cameras. The plan worked, and they spent four hours roaming the tunnels.

"'Holy shit,' I heard myself whisper involuntarily," Carlson later wrote on his site. "We'd made it: We were in the tunnels. And damn, it felt good."

Carlson took it upon himself to show the entrance to other explorers, and brought groups back a handful of times. It was on their fourth trip to the Ford mines that the Action Squad encountered the security guard.

They had spent a total of five hours in the mines and the adjacent hydro plant. When they came out, they saw a truck in the driveway next to the entrance, says Eric Sutterlin, one of the explorers with Carlson that night.

"I recall a large, full-sized, gray pickup truck sitting directly in front of the exit door," he says. "And it was idling."

The group made a run for it, and no one chased them. Carlson wrote about the experience on the Action Squad site, and speculated that the guard had most likely fallen asleep. A few years later, the suspicion was confirmed when someone identifying himself as the guard wrote a message on the Action Squad's guestbook.

"Just noticed your web site, you guys don't know just how close you came to resembling a june bug on a bug zapper," he wrote. "Even we don't go into the cable tunnel without taking extra precautions."

"And you're right," the message ended. "I fell asleep waiting for you."

Perhaps it was inevitable that Action Squad and Brick would one day clash. But for years they coexisted, albeit with little interaction. Both subscribed to "Under-MN," an early listserv for explorers to communicate and exchange tips.

"There used to be some sharing of information back and forth between the two of them," says Dan Dockery, an explorer and friend of Carlson's. "Even though I doubt they ever really spent any time hanging out in person, at least online they were cordial."

A rift began after Brick placed a lock on the gated entrance to the old Heinrich Brewery Caves, to which only he had the key. Then in October 2001, City Pages published a profile on Brick, called "Notes from the Underground." The story followed Brick on several outings, including the North Minneapolis Tunnels — a sewer stretching from Brooklyn Park to downtown Minneapolis — a spot known as Satan's Cave on Nicollet Island, and Chutes Cave.

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