The Big Hole, or, Looks can be Deceiving

posted 02/10/04

It was winter break. That's what I remember best. If I were still in school, and someone had, later, asked me what I'd done over my winter vacation, I'd have had one hell of a story to tell from that weekend in December.
I'm not in college, though. Several of the people I was with were, and had taken the opportunity to do a little exploring over the very cold winter holiday. They let me tag along, because I'm just such a likeable person. Well, half that sentance is true...

We found the site on a map. Honest. Right there on a topographic map, plain as day. Nobody we knew had ever been by it, and we didn't even know if it was accessible. Just across the border in South Dakota, it was also quite a drive, but, hey, we're still kind of young, so we rounded up our gear, piled into cars, and headed on a road trip.
It seemed like only an hour later, and there we were, driving around back roads in snow-covered South Dakota, looking for the site. We finally found it, on a narrow, winding road outside a tiny town whose name escapes me. A large hole in the side of a hill, partly filled with a snow-covered pile of dirt and rock.
It wasn't great, but it could have been worse, I suppose. A pressing problem was the lack of parking; almost a mile from the nearest town, on the side of a small rural road in the middle of nowhere, is a conspicuous place to park two cars with out-of-state license plates. We drove on, eventually reaching an intersection where we were able to turn around and have a brief council of war.
Some discussion later, much of which translated to "I don't care, but I really have to pee", it was decided that everyone but the drivers of the two cars would be dropped off outside the entrance, then the drivers would head into town, park at the bar, and walk back... so that's what happened. The cars pulled up; no other traffic was in sight. Everyone but the drivers piled out, grabbed their gear, and double-timed it through the snow, past a deep drainage culvert, up the pile of rubble, and, more cautiously, through the narrow opening and out of sight of the road, while the drivers headed into town.
It would have been embarassing in the extreme if that half-filled entrance had been the extent of the cave... but it wasn't, praise the Goddess. A tall but narrow sandstone passage, partially choked with loose sand, led down, further into the hillside. As tempting as a new underground complex, even a manmade one, is, we held our enthusiasm in check and waited for the drivers of the cars to join us.
It wasn't long before they arrived, and we spent the time unpacking flashlights, adjusting bags and packs, and similar types of activities. A corner of the entrance chamber was designated the bathroom... but I digress. The drivers returned, played with their lights, bags, and bowels for a bit, then we all set off, further into the depths of South Dakota.
It was medium-sized, and clearly manmade, but also clearly old. The tunnel we were in was perhaps fifteen feet high, and about the same width, carved through the sandstone by hand (pickmarks were clearly visible in places). No footprints were discernable in the sand, not even raccoons. It headed down at a shallow angle for perhaps fifty feet, the floor covered with loose white sand, before coming to a round room or chamber. Opposite us was another tunnel... the entrance half-clogged with a pile of sand that pretty obviously had been placed there intentionally. As opposed to, say, having just fallen from the ceiling, you understand. The significance of this, in our excitement and enthusuasm, completely escaped us.
We headed further in, and it soon became, to an extent, a case of "same old, same old". Tunnel, big pile of sand, more tunnel. Intersection, piles of sand. We were heading gently downhill, and were probably a hundred feet or more beneath the surface, when we encountered a rude surprise - mud.
Not just any mud, either. This was the good stuff, thick, dark, and more than a foot deep. Cracks had formed in the surface of the drying mud, some as wide as two inches. It was beautiful, but also deucedly annoying to walk through. Every patch of mud was a little different; in some, the outer edges were firm, while the center was still extremely, well, muddy, but in others the center was firm enough to walk on easily while the edges were thin and slimy. It smelled, too, in a very, um, organic way.
The upshot was that, where there was mud, there were no piles of sand to laborously climb over. Not much of an upshot, when compared to trudging through ankle-deep mud, but, really, climbing ten-foot high piles of loose sand again and again and again gets very old, very quickly when you're out of shape. Try it sometime and see. There were numerous raccoon and rat prints, and possibly opossum ones as well, in the mud. Where the mud came from, we had no clue; an underground river, perhaps. In any event, if the place periodically flooded, it was easy to see why it was (ineptly) sealed off and no longer used. Well, alright, nobody really uses lagering caves any more for beer production, but there's still a valid observation there somewhere...
We followed the mud for a ways, and soon found the first signs of recent human use: rusting water barrels and food cannisters from the Office of Civil Defense, embedded in the mud. It would seem the place served as a fallout shelter during the cold war. A seemingly unopened, rusty mystery food can was opened, in the spirit of exploration, and whatever it had been fifty years ago was now foul beyond words. Really.
We headed on, coming to wider, more uniform tunnels, and retuned to sand and not mud as we went up a slight incline. By this point we had travelled a little over a mile of tunnels in just under two hours. Some more intelligent people might start in surprise at this, thinking that a mile of tunnels is rather large for a brewery cave, even a manmade one, to which I say, you're right, it wasn't a brewery cave... it was, in point of fact, once a silica mine.
Not long after leaving the land of mud, we came to a still larger and more uniform tunnel, one perhaps thirty feet wide and twenty feet high. The air smelled slightly... oily, and hinted of machinery and undustry; the sand on the floor showed numerous tyre tracks, but we headed on, unconcerned, for underground there's little to remove old tracks. Oh, more folly us...
A lot of people in UE identify with the kids in the movie Goonies, and there's a recurring joke that we're searching in vain for a lost, underground pirate ship. So, imagine our jaw-dropping surprise when we turned a corner into a side passage off the main tunnel and came face-to-face with an underground lake!
It was a chamber - perhaps two hundred feet across, and four hundred feet long, with numerous tunnels on the far side visible in the light of our flashlights, leading off into the darkness. It was also several feet deep in quite clear water, pouring in from a 6" PVC pipe. Light was just visible through one of the distant openings. We stood, in silence, too awestruck to speak, admiring the beauty, the majesty, the expanse, the sheer unbelievability of the place. It was like something out of The Hobbit! I fully expected to see Gollum come rafting by; at that time, very little could have surprised or shocked me.
Headlights and the sound of a vehicle were definately high on that list, though, and that's what we saw and heard moments later. The pucker-factor meter pegged itself at ten, everyone swore, turned off their lights, and threw themselves against the walls or behind some rocks on the floor, and watched in disbelief as a pickup truck drove slowly down the main, large tunnel. Not just a silica mine, you understand... an active silica mine.
Well, almost everyone. One of the group had the bad luck to be back near the main entrance, and didn't have time to hide or kill his light before the truck went by. His only option? He ran for it, fight or flight time. Before we knew what had happened, he disappeared around the corner, further into the mine.
We were busted, dead to rights. There was no imaginable way the driver of the truck could fail to see the guy in the white caving helmet with light attached run past. A quick conference was held by the lakeshore. Run for it, and abandon one person? No, it was pretty evident that if one of us was caught, we'd all be screwed... besides, it's not real friendly to abandon someone several hours from home, underground, in winter without a ride. Try to talk our way out if it? Possible, but risky. Try to bluff our way out, intimidating or confusing the truck driver? Looks bad if it doesn't work. Split up, head in as many directions as possible, and make the security people really earn their pay tracking us down? Uh, no.
We were still discussing this when our would-be sprinter came sprinting back. He was a bit scary looking, out of breath and with his eyes bugged out in fear. Under other circumstances, it would have been comical, but not just now. I expected to see someone following him, but he was alone. He, the explorer, explained quickly that the truck had stopped, and backed up a ways, but then gone on ahead, without stopping or confronting him. Could we be so lucky, that we weren't seen? Or was the lone employee calling in reinforcements?
We sprinted for the exit, a half-hour journey that was probably the most intense exercise I'd had in years. Not to labor the point... I'm slow and fat. We reached the entrance chamber, still hidden from outside view... and mild, if healthy, paranoia set in.
Did they know we were here, or not? Did they care? And, most pressingly, would there be a Sheriff's deputy waiting outside for us to exit? The answer to the last, at least, was no. A quick plan was concocted for our egress, and it went like this:
The drivers of the cars would head out and back to their cars. The rest of us would wait five minutes, then hide in the drainage culvert, out of view of the road. The two cars would go by, honk, head up to the intersection, turn around, and swing past once more, whereupon we would all board in an expedited fashion and, as they say, get the hell out of Dodge.

This plan was put into action.

It was just possible to view the road from behind some bushes alongside the culvert, and we lay or squatted there in the snow for what seemed like eternity, waiting for the sign of headlights. They came, at long last, and the lookout whispered "everyone down". Everyone ducked down out of sight as a single car drove past and disappeared into the distance. Not our cars... crap. A few minutes later the drill was repeated, and two cars drove past, the second one honking as it did so. We prepared ourselves for the hasty exfiltration... when a fourth car came by. For a rural road in the middle of nowhere, at almost nine at night, in the middle of winter, there sure was a lot of traffic.
We waited, and our two cars came by, again, going in the opposite direction. Instead of stopping, they whizzed right by. We were so surprised by this turn of events we barely had time to take cover from yet another car going by, this one following them.
I have never in my life felt as much like a terrorist as I did laying - hiding - on the side of a road, behind a guardrail, at night in the middle of nowhere. It was a long, drawn-out surreal moment; I had trouble believing I was doing this, and occasional moments of panic as I imagined how people would respond in this paranoid post-9/11 world if we were spotted.
Plan be damned, our cars came around on their third pass and we rose from the culvert and charged the road like soldiers emerging from the trenches in WWI, climbed into the cars, and were on our way in fifteen seconds, with no witnesses other than a squirrel or two.
We headed safely back into civilization and stopped for dinner at a restaurant, all agreeing that today had been a little too close of a call for comfort.
I'd like to think we all learned lessons, deep insightful lessons that will serve us well later in life and can be passed down to our offspring in moving moments of great seriousness and solmenity... but I'd just be fooling myself. The lessons we learned were things we already knew, but had ignored: eight people is four too many for one trip, don't explore with people you don't totally trust, and, perhaps most importantly, them there piles of sand and debris are there for a reason - to keep people out. Well, we learned there's an underground lake beneath South Dakota, but that's hardly a lesson, now, is it?
So, there you have it - possibly the greatest (the only?) UE attraction in South Dakota. Beautiful? Fun? Exciting? Oh my yes... but also very dangerous. Drains are one thing, caves are another, and abandonments can be another level of danger entirely... but an active mine? That's a tad dangerous, even by the lassez-faire standards of Canadian Ninjas...


All Contents of BUGGRIT.COM are (C) 2002 - 2004 M. Gilday. All Rights Reserved. No portion may be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the owner.