A Storm Drain

posted 03/11/04

We met on a Friday after work, at a parking lot in a park near the drain. Four explorers, one female, and two-person photography crew who'd never done anything similar before. Dressed in layers against the cold Minnesota winter, feet clad in rubber boots, we must have looked unusual, but nobody said anything. Introductions were made all around, then we briefly discussed the location we were headed to - a large, beautiful storm drain under the city. After a last check to make sure everyone had ID on them, and no weapons, drugs, or drug paraphanalia, just in case, we squeezed ourselves into two cars and drove to another parking lot nearer the drain.

As much as we might wish otherwise, it's essentially impossible to be inconspicuous when you have six people walking down the street at night, carrying tripods and flashlights and wearing rubber boots or, in the case of the female half of the photography crew, hip waders. Luckily, this was The Street That Time (and Public Works) Forgot, and nobody saw us as we trooped past ruts and potholes to the point of entrance.

For a place you're technically not supposed to go, entrance to this drain was unbelievably easy. Walk along the road, climb down into a drainage ditch, and enter a large hole into darkness. Easy.

Okay, to be honest, we had to climb over ice-covered rocks, wade through a deep mix of mud, water, and loose sand, then step carefully around an eviscerated raccoon, but it was still very easy. "How much climbing will we have to do?" one of the photographers wanted to know. "That was it", we tell them. "It's all flat from here."

This part of the tunnel is shallow - so shallow, in fact, the ceiling is flat and less than a foot below the surface above. It's also gently arched red brick, which contrasts nicely with the large limestone blocks that form the walls. The photographers are excited by this, and spend some time setting up lights and shooting footage of the tunnel, and the rest of us walking through it. That done, we head further on, into a junction room where two smaller tunnels, including the one we entered through, join to make one larger tunnel. This large open area excites the camera crew, but the deafening white noise of a waterfall is not to their liking. "It's all uphill from here."

We head upstream, through the deepest part of the drain, easing our way past a large pipe pouring out a torrent of water and trying not to lose our footing on the loose sand that covers the brick floor. Watery hazard behind us, we tromp along a damp square section of tunnel where the drain passes under an interstate highway. Although it's the newest, and to many people ugliest part of the tunnel, the featureless concrete tube is seemingly fascinating to the photographers. Ah, to be new at this, all bright-eyed, eager, and excited by every little thing... Their enthusiasm is a source of much amusement to us, and we try to dissuade them from photographing things that we, then explorers, take for common or consider mundane. "Really, this is among the finalists for most boring section of this drain, there's much, much better-looking stuff up ahead."

This stretch of much quieter tunnel continues for some time. "Is it all like this?" someone asks. No, we tell them, it gets much, much better in a few minutes. Right on schedule, we pass from the square, ten-foot concrete tunnel into a twenty-foot arched tunnel constructed from large limestone blocks. Our flashlights and headlights illuminate the nearest parts of this section, and we all stop and make firework noises, "ooohs" and "aaahs" of appreciation at this hidden little marvel. Even for those of us who've seen it before, it's an amazing sight that never fails to impress in it's sheer scale and ancient, otherworldly beauty.

Some shooting is done here, and the 300-watt lights the cameraman has brought with light up the tunnel amazingly well. Alas, this portable lighting rig costs more than all my cameras lumped together, which news crushes my gear-envy in it's tracks. The cameraman, a small, wiry fellow, climbs down a three-foot RCP side tunnel to get footage of us explorers walking past, and tries a few other creative ideas before we head on.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and the huge arched stone tunnel is no exception. After a hundred yards or so it becomes a round RCP, which continues for some time. Partway along this stretch we find a manhole shaft whose lid is missing; snowmelt has dripped down the open hole, freezing into a huge and beautiful blob of ice on the rungs. Photos are taken, footage is shot, and we proceed on, to a junction with a six-foot round side passage. We head down this for a ways, to a rectangular manhole chamber, then return to the main passageway. This side passage is somewhat recently relined with fiberglass over the original concrete, and the rounded, extremely smooth fiberglass is treacherously slippery. The most daring of the explorers takes a running start, then slides for twenty or so feet on his feet in a new activity we promptly dub "drain surfing". The camera crew are very entertained by this, and easily persuade him to repeat this stunt for the camera, which he does, losing his footing at the last minute in a dramatic and above-all wet accident. "Did you get that?" the director exclaims. "Excellent!" After determing that he's unscathed, we continue along the main passageway.

It's worth noting that, despite what it may seem, this was not a trip taken in near silence. We talked the entire time, us getting to better know the director and cameraman, and they getting to know us. While walking, we explorers briefed the photographers on the history of the drain and details of it's construction, as well as some of the terminology that we use. Some of this was deemed sufficiently entertaining that we were prompted to repeat bits of it on-camera, which taught us about the difficulties of sounding conversational and spontaneous in front of cameras. Add this to the countless other useless skills on our collective resumes...

We continued through a mile or so of tunnel, stopping occasionally to shoot footage of features or points of interest, and passing through a number of tunnel shapes. We reached a large junction or diversion chamber near the furthest-upstream passable point, and stopped for a bit of a rest, then, you guessed it, headed back towards the exit, retracing our steps. The grade of the drain, in this case typically roughly three percent, was much more apparent heading "downhill" towards the exit, and the hours of walking through water made itself felt in our legs; the director joked of how much benefit this outing was doing her legs and butt, and suggested the creation of a "urban exploration exercise program". She may have a point; from what I've seen, drainers tend to have pretty nice legs... Don't tell the cash-strapped city, though, or they'll start charging admission fees to the most popular or accessible sewers and drains.

Back to the very first junction room, near where we entered, and then we go further downstream, towards the outfall. The outfall itself isn't visitable from inside without swimming, so we stop short of that and turn down a parallel side passage, a roughly fifteen-foot square concrete tunnel. This one is almost dry, the floor littered with rocks, bricks, construction debris, rusted and unidentifiable bits of metal, tattered pieces of clothing, and more. Much footage is shot here, as the director finds this area strangely fascinating. We head on to yet another side passage, this one smaller and stained a uniform brown color. After a brief explanation that this is a CSO, which has, of course, to be repeated for the camera, we take a quick peek down this tunnel before calling it a night, as we're all becoming cold and tired, it's late, the floodlights are just about dead, and this tunnel smells somewhat of raw sewage.

We retrace our steps again, and head towards our entrance point. We query the photographers on whether they had fun and how much they enjoyed seeing "our" drain; the responses are overwhelmingly positive, especially from the director, who turns out to be most enthusiastically "hooked" on UE. Our exit made without incident, we head to the cars and call it a winter night well spent beneath the big city.

It's often asked why we explore the places we do. There are dozens of answers, all seemingly as valid as any other. A more insightful, though less frequent, question is what the attraction of these places is. This is harder to explain, because the answer often boils down to "beauty", a concept difficult to reconcile with a layman's ideas of drains and sewers. There's no easy way to describe the sound, smell, feeling, and above all sight of emerging into a hundred-year-old section of arched stone tunnel deep underground that rises high above you and stretches into the distance as far as you can see; photographs can accurately depict the delicate beauty of mineral deposits stretching downward from the ceiling of a drain, but can't convey the sense of wonder, the incongruity of finding such a thing in this sort of place. Words can't adequately convey the experience of stopping and turning off every light source in a drain, as you experience true, deep, absolute darkness and the lulling, relaxing, numbing sound of water rushing past for minutes on end and find out what it truly means to feel alone. It's rewarding, and perhaps a little validating, to introduce "outsiders" to this magical, hidden world, and see and hear that they feel, they understand the attractions that so few people know or understand. It's definately not for everyone, and happily so, but for those willing, the unknown and forgotten are a rewarding, if temporary, escape from the shallow, pasteurized existance of modern life... and I wouldn't have it any other way.


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