Minneapolis / Saint Paul / Twin Cities urban exploration
Kittsondale Helix Drains    (built in 1931)
10/21/00 & 09/02/01
West Kittsondale (Triple Helix)
October 21st, 2000
Max Action, Red Skull, Code E, and Coal
East Kittsondale (Helix)
September 2nd, 2001
Max Action, Jim, & Bear

     We were tipped off about the existence of the Triple Helix drain by a local urban adventurer.  Based on the descriptions of the system's features, we decided to check it out, although we don’t usually explore drainage tunnels (so many more interesting places to see!).  We went straight from seeing “Drunken Master” in Roseville to the area where it was possible to access the tunnel.

     The riverside entrance was huge, and the concrete surrounding it was decorated with spray-painted portrayals of various cartoon characters using various illegal drugs.  The entrance tunnel went straight inward for a long ways, with occasional vertical shafts emptying into it from above, creating mini waterfalls.  We skipped the first couple of side tunnels (including the first of the 3 spiral staircases that give the tunnel its name), and then opted to explore the next one.  It was spiral staircase #2.  The walls of the upward twisting tunnel were brick, and a few inches of water cascaded down it.  It had a faint, nasty smell to it, and was quite slimy.  We started up.

     250 steps later (Coal counted), we reached the top.  It led to a sulphurous sanitary tunnel full of reeking gases and greenish, decomposing human turds. This was the source of the stinking slime water. So much for the separation of sewage and storm drain! We continued our ascent to a shallow-level drainage tunnel system.  After poking around a bit, we decided to head back down to the deep tunnel, where we continued to venture deeper beneath Saint Paul.  And deeper.  And then, for shits and giggles, we decided to go deeper still.  It was at about this point that Coal made the insightful observation that immediately became the night’s motto: “Man, we’re way the fuck under shit!”  If we were to make Action Squad t-shirts, this might even beat out the “Goonies” quote.

    Finally, we came to a message spray-painted on the wall: “Congratulations.  Go up.” An arrow pointed upward and deeper into the shaft.  We followed it with our eyes, and found a six-inch diameter pipe dripping water down into the tunnel.  Just when we had dismissed the painted message as the work of some adventuring wiseass, we spied the end of the tunnel about 20 feet ahead.  At the end was the third and final spiral staircase, leading upward.  This one was made of gravelly concrete, and had a drain channel spiral alongside of it, rather than water just running down the steps themselves.

     Presumably, these staircases exist as a solution to the problems involved in getting large amounts of drain water down from shallow storm drainage systems to a deep level drain. If you simply drop it all straight down a huge vertical shaft, erosion is going to wipe out the bottom of the shaft. However, if you slow the descent by channeling the water around and around a spiral, the problem is solved. Other drain systems solve this in other ways, such as the "Temple" part of the Temple of the Drowned Cat Drain, which features a huge iron "catcher" on a raised cement platform.

     At the top was another shallow drainage system, going off in two directions.  To access one way, we had to scale a slippery cement slope that would have been a bitch had not some prior adventurer left a nylon rope tied up there for future explorers to use.  (Thanks!)

To make a long night into a single run-on sentence: we explored the shallow tunnels until we were bored with them, tried to find an exit to the so-close surface but were thwarted by stuck iron drain covers, and wound up heading back out the way we’d come in (I HATE doing that, but it was 4:00 AM and Coal needed to home).  We were mostly silent on the way out, each lost in fantasies of food and drink, and hopping from one side of the tunnel to the other occasionally to relieve our TAS (tunnel ankle syndrome).  After hours of walking, waddling, crawling, and wiggling through miles of drains, the open night sky was a beautiful sight.

    They’d started closing Riverside Perkins at midnight (tradition-destroying bastards), so we went to White Castle for our victory meal.

     We had known for years that the Triple Helix drain had a sister drain somewhere on the other end of Saint Paul. However, due to our general lack of interest in storm drains we never made any effort to find it, and did not plan on doing so. But …

     One fine fall day we were out along the Mississippi riverbank launching another attempt at accessing a long sealed-off cave system, checking for access via any nearby drains. We discovered a massive storm water outfall, and quickly realized we'd stumbled across "that other helix drain." To get down into the outfall required scaling down a 10-foot wall to a narrow, slippery ledge. If you fell, you'd be in for a plunge into the river. Bear, who, as his name implies is a brawny fellow, opted not to follow Jim and I down the somewhat tricky route to the drain.

     So the two of us headed in. Our original plan was to simply go down a ways and see if there was a side passage leading in the direction of the caves. However, we soon came down with bad cases of Drain Fever. People with stubborn wills and strong drives to explore are highly susceptible to this insidious affliction of the mental faculties. When exposed to endless marches down almost featureless drain tunnels, a victim of this malady will find it impossible to simply turn back and leave.

     We failed to find a side passage, and quickly were far too deep to expect any side passage to intersect with the cave. We had one of our crew waiting back at the mouth of the drain. A sane person would have turned around and gone back. We were not sane. We had Drain Fever. The further we progressed into the huge shaft, the less willing we were to turn around. You see, the more we went in, the less appealing the long backtrack would be. Also, the longer we went, the more time and effort we'd invested on the thing, and the more determined we therefore became to not leave until we'd seen some interesting features.

     Just as sanity would begin to reassert itself, we'd hear the sound of water falling from somewhere ahead of us, and decide we had to at least see what it was before turning back. Then, once we found the catch-basin or mid-tunnel waterfall, we'd go on a little further, buoyed by seeing something other than a huge, concrete tube. And before we could turn around, the siren song of the next waterfall would urge us onward once again.

Soon, we had forgotten all about "just going for a quick look," and were on a full out mission to find the spiral staircase we suspected existed somewhere before us. By this point, I'm not sure either of us recalled that Bear was waiting back by the entrance. Maybe we just didn't care. Don't think us heartless! For, lo! we were in the grip of the dread Drain Fever, and should not be held accountable for our actions.

     Thousands of steps, several small waterfalls, and a few good-sized catch-basins later, we came to the end of the deep portion of the drain. As we'd hoped, the tunnel's end was a shift to an ascending spiral staircase, tightly winding around a hollow concrete pillar. Water cascaded down the steps, and from debris stuck to the walls, it appeared that when there was an influx of runoff water the staircase flooded over 6 feet deep. Stop and imagine that … a 7-foot wall of water racing downward in a sharp spiral for over a hundred feet. Yikes.

Anyway, we climbed to the top, sticking toward the inside of the spiral, where the water was less deep. Once up, our Drain Fever broken by the discovery of the Helix, we only went down the huge shallow tunnel as far as the very first runged vertical shaft to the surface (which was still surprisingly far up) we could find. After making sure we were not in the middle of a road, we popped the manhole and emerged in a field by some railroad tracks. The trek back to the entrance on the surface took a long, long time. After some difficulty, we located Bear, who'd long since given up on us and was off exploring the bluff by himself, and headed to a 24-hours Perkins we'd discovered in Saint Paul.