Urban Grotto: An Account from Chutes Cave

It was winter, but I was sweating.

Where I was, the temperature hovers around 65 degrees, year round. The water was molten glass; but frigid. It crawled down the walls, over armies of mineral formations and assembled in deep, sand bottomed pools. Oranges, scarlets, maroons, burgundies, browns and jades grew in sculpturous forms. The cavern swallowed all noise into some distant recess. One would think there was a vast, empty, noiseless world between us and the surface; Minneapolis made no sound loud enough for us to hear below her.

And if it does not still, this city used to make a lot of noise.

Historically, Minneapolis was known to the Midwest as “The Mill City”. Farming, shipping, sifting, sorting, weighing, bagging, exchanging, and stocking of grain, anything to do with grain, was the name of the game for the Mill City. Today, mill structures of old, stand derelict, in sentinel rows up and down the banks of The Cities on the Mississippi. Our cave, it so happened, was only accessible via the workings of an abandoned grain mill on the east bank. The excitement of adventure was enriched and accessible only through an intimate engagement with history.

Remnant of The Mill City

Remnant of The Mill City

The city was blanketed in the dim light of dinner time dusk.

The river would not cease the letting off of a breezy chill, harassing the hairs on our necks, stinging the lobes of our ears. Pale downtown Minneapolis glow from the opposite bank mixed with the bath of burning red from the Pillsbury sign perched atop the mill, above us. The four of us stood at the edge of the river, at the foot of the ridge, at the mouth of an eerie canal, tunneling back into the earth, like a throat, choking on darkness.

"Perched atop the mill"

“Perched atop the mill”

The canal was the drainage for water redirected from the Mississippi.

The river water was the hydroelectric heartbeat for the mill. It powered the being. Now, the being was dead and the water barely flowed at a shin height deep. We rolled up our pant legs and I took the first step. I wondered where the ice was. I expected it. The water was cold enough. With painful cries and in crippled limps our party moved forward in phalanx formation.

The Canal

The Canal

Into the Canal.

Into the Canal.

Driven onward

by the tempting sound of rushing water and the potential for discovery  we ignored the pain of the water and were soon completely enveloped by the palpable darkness of the canal’s interior. Before and above us was a framework of railroad ties and other planks constructed above the water. Our technical free climbing experience allowed us to gain their heightened comfort. The packs were opened, soaked shoes were exchanged for dry ones and flashlights were passed out and powered up. Our beams searched the walls of the canal.

[ Information from the original document has been redacted to protect the cave.]

We moved through a series of small concrete chambers.

Their purpose in the production of milling was unknown, but also not paramount to our expedition. We were here for adventure. History and architecture, attractive complements to exploring the underground, could not warrant our attention in this moment. The maze of concrete rooms seemed to have a single purpose: to frustrate our approach to the prize in the furthest room.

This is old video from our adolescent years before GoPro’s and the adoption of proper equipment and caving practices. Rest assured, with proper guidance from local organizations we have developed into responsible cavers. Always wear helmets and invest in proper lighting.

The back wall of the room had escaped being coated in concrete.

The bare rock was wet and cold. This seemingly benign wall possessed one feature that ignited again our party’s constant craving for discovery. The seam between natural stone and false stone was an open crack, a gateway to the goal, “Go deeper.” Before continuing I glanced above the hole, expecting the familiar glyph etched into the stone, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” It was absent. There was only room enough in the tunnel to belly crawl. So, serpentine, we continued on. The going got rougher. Pounds were added as our clothes drenched themselves in the trickling water we slid through. Forced to partake in intimate positions with jagged limestone slabs, we became very uncomfortable. Mud smeared the lenses of our lights. Grit buried itself in our hair and nested in our molars. Breathing heavy, knees bruised, a bloody shin, I continued on still. There was a cave at the end of this Hell Crack.

1909 Chutes Cave Survey Courtesy of Greg Brick

1909 Chutes Cave Survey
Courtesy of Greg Brick

One hundred and fifty feet of this feels like forever

when the possibility of disaster, in the form of loose, mammoth stones, clinging to the ceiling only inches above your head, seemingly salivating water onto your forehead, itching for the chance to break loose, to take a new position of rest and your life with it. The insignificance of a human compared to the might of nature had never been so clear. This was caving. Then the smell came.

A beautiful smell; a smell of dirt and stale air –

the underground. The smell of  a cave washed over us. We smiled, we exited the Hell Crack, and we bathed in the victorious scent. The awe and grandeur of our subterranean cathedral was revealed as we painted the massive space with the pale yellow of our flashlights. Outside was cold, but in here, I was sweating. The water was molten glass; but frigid. It crawled down the walls, over armies of mineral formations and assembled in deep, sand bottomed pools. Oranges, scarlets, maroons, burgundies, browns and jades grew in sculptured forms. The cavern swallowed all noise into some distant recess.


Flowstone formations

We had captured our thrill.

The feeling was as humbling as it was uplifting, and as exhilarating as it was frightening. We had reached our cave, and, although we still had to get back out, for that one moment, we didn’t care if we ever would. Savoring our victory and relishing a sight and experience that the masses will never partake in, we moved towards our chosen spot: the bank of a deep, ice water cave pool. Dropping into exhausted and exhilarated slumps, we clicked off our lights. We sat in the darkest of darknesses. It was just us, the dank smell of the cave, the dripping water and the cool stone. We listened for groans from the bowels of the earth, and for sounds from the oblivious majority, pitter-pattering across the surface.

Courtesy of Action Squad

Courtesy of Action Squad


Recommended Links:

Twin Cities Urban Recon Article 11-08

Action Squad Article 10-00

Scholarly Paper from Greg Brick

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