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.

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"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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11 comments
MaxActionSquadMPLS
MaxActionSquadMPLS

While this thankfully wasn't an outright smear-job like the 2001 CP article was, it nonetheless contained several inaccuracies, didn't include a link to the page the lawsuit is all about (http://www.actionsquad.org/Greg-Brick-Subterranean-Twin-Cities.htm), and did quite a remarkably poor job explaining my side of this situation.

So I thought I would post a comment containing a simple list of reasons that we do not believe that the same thing really happened to Greg, as he claims. 

  • the written witness account from Brick's friend (who was with him the night that they accessed the mines, using the entrance we'd found & shared) labelled Greg's Ford Mines story as "inaccurate" - and revealed that the vehicle Greg saw was "several hundred yards away" from the mine exit.  (Brick wrote that it was "smack across" from them, upon exiting the mine  - as it was in the Action Squad story).

  • in Brick's (since deleted) response to my Amazon book review, he claimed that Ford security "always" parked their vehicles across from the mine entrance - and that this proves that I am "unfamiliar with the mines." (ha) 

  • also in that review, Brick made the bizarre claim that he knows that security guards commonly slept there / parked their trucks there - because a friend of his monitored Ford security's radio conversations. (?!?)

  • yet, in dozens and dozens of explorations by dozens of other local explorers, no one else EVER saw a guard sleeping there upon approach or exit, or even saw a truck parked anywhere near the mine entrance. And of course, not one other person or group was either busted or almost busted coming from the mines.

  • Brick was clearly well-aware of the Action Squad site's Ford story (he actually referred to it in the same paragraph, and must have written that passage of his book with the incredible similarity to the story in mind) - yet the alleged surprising coincidence had never came up before the book was published, in ~10 years.

  • witness accounts from Greg's friend (and his friend's wife - both of whom were with him the night he went into the Ford Mines after they learned of the entrance we'd found) do not include ANY mention of a sleeping guard, or even any mention of Brick reporting having seen one at the time - although this seems likely to have been a highly memorable aspect of the event (particularly in light of the well-known story on the Action Squad site)

I know well - better than most, perhaps - that crazy coincidences can and do happen.

However, for the reasons above (in addition to the way Greg has since behaved, and how he seems so clearly motivated by SPITE in his dealings with other explorers), I continue to believe that Greg inserted the sleeping guard story in his book - likely in an effort to anger me in a way he thought I would be impotent to do anything about.

It's been a pain in the butt dealing with the legal threats and intimidation, and I'll be happy to see it all finally go away with the upcoming settlement - but I don't regret it, and I still stand by everything I've written. 

Max Action

relux
relux

I see comments are being deleted from this article. Is Greg Brick also convincing the City Pages to squash free speech now too? Incredible. 

Squeamish
Squeamish

From the 2001 article, linked below by Relux:  "Brick decided he would try to emulate the adventure. After going down the same manhole three weeks later, however, Brick and his longtime sewering companion John were alarmed to see that NMT's flow had increased. "I just started feeling so fucking weird," Brick remembers. "Then John looked at me, and he said, 'Let's get out of here.' He said it. But I probably would have if he hadn't. We just hightailed out of there." It was a bitter setback. "I just steamed about it all winter," Brick says now. "It was like I'd been shown up by some greenhorn.""

Later, in the same article:   "[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."

 --So who here is coming from a caving background?  Not to mention, I have been part of the Twin Cities urban exploring community for many years and I can attest that there are many explorers who will spend countless days of hard work (e. g. digging) to get into a new location.  Like it or not, Greg, we're not point-and-click kids.

lucid
lucid

Great article, with lots of implications for free speech and censorship!

Seems to me that it's amazingly hypocritical that Mr. Brick goes out of his way to complain about websites revealing the caves in his book that's written with the soul purpose of revealing the caves. Someone needs to get off their soapbox.

relux
relux

After reading this article and specifically the part about this lock that Brick admitted to placing, I have a few thoughts. Strangely, the 2001 article that is mentioned is not linked (http://www.citypages.com/2001-10-17/news/notes-from-underground/). 

City Pages 10/17/2001
GREG BRICK: "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?"

City pages 03/06/2013
GREG BRICK: "Brick says his intentions were misinterpreted. The gated entrance leads to part of the cave where bats hibernate during the winter, and he was afraid that if too many people had access, the animals would be disturbed or killed."

--
I guess I am confused here as to what was misinterpreted. In 2001, he offered that maybe he locked it because of selfishness "or whatever". But really, he said he just maybe wanted the cave to himself. Then he said it's actually because he wanted to "have his own little key to the underground". 

He then went on further to say he knows its not his cave or sewer tunnel to lock off, but he does it anyways. However, previously in the same City Pages article, he says "The difference is between people who come from a caving background and people who come from a trespassing background." So who here is coming from a caving background? 

Now, after 11 years he graciously offers us a 4th reason he locked the gate. Naturally, this one falls more in line with the image he is trying to rewrite for himself. Yeah, dude. I'm sure. You were thinking of the bats. 

To answer Greg's own question of "Isn't it bizarre?". Why, yes, Greg. It is bizarre. You can't reshape history. 

ManikawG
ManikawG

"This has been a pure and simple nightmare for Greg".

Yeah, that's what happens when you try and suppress free speech. Imagine the nightmares people have in Myanmar. 

Markus.Amberson
Markus.Amberson

Well written and fascinating story. Like many others who read this, I had no idea such stuff existed and never heard of "Action Squad". From all accounts, Greg Brick appears to come across as a professional but the article never mentions what he does for a living. Certainly at age 50, there would be some type of career involved here. Is he just an assistant to a researcher? 

Looking at the Action Squad website it looks like it hasn't been updated in ages. Why does Greg even care about Action Squad? Is this group that important that he feels they have the power to undermine his writings? It seems to me that Action Squad are a bunch of kids that are doing what kids do. Explore their city. It happens everywhere. People say mean things about people all the time.

I don't know I could come up with another case of someone as old as this dude fighting a bunch of kids over something they said on the internet. What a waste of time.

EmilyErikson71
EmilyErikson71

This greg brick is a doctoral candidate? He reminds me of the senior in high school that would always pick fights with the cooler more hip freshman. Except this guy is 50 years old. Sad sad state of affairs. Get a life.

olso6311
olso6311

@Markus.Amberson Brick is a geologist and historian, as well as a caver.  I purchased the book awhile back and it is both well-written and informative, but he has handled this situation poorly.  He's tried to take UE into a professional thing, blaming the 'no-good punk pipe rats' (i.e. action squad) who have done nothing wrong, never once directly revealing a location on the site.

And the site has been defunct for awhile as the group has dwindled in size and I think Max just doesn't want to be web-master anymore.  Both parties are well informed, and in a sense, well intentioned, Brick is just being a little immature about this, as he DID steal the Ford story from Action Squad.

dennislang07
dennislang07

Fascinating story beautifully covered by the author. Yes, it's about people who explore caves afterall but does have far wider 1st Amendment implications. Of especial interest is the role of attorney Anfinson. To my knowledge no more vigorous advocate of free speech anywhere now on the other side of the table. If this case went all the way would be truly intriguing to see how it's decided. One of the great virtues of the internet is as  platform to share information, also one of its potentially devious detriments--no guarantees that information is credible.. Nice article!

 
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