Minneapolis / Saint Paul / Twin Cities urban exploration

Lucky 13 Drain


Trip 1 : We Hate Ducks
January 2003
Max Action & MuppySkum

We went with the vague idea that maybe we'd gain access to the flooded outfall of the drain by walking on ice. Nope. The drainage was still heavy enough from the massive outfall that it had melted the river ice outward in a huge semi-circle. Ducks were swimming in the rare patch of open, warmer water. They laughed at us. We vowed to return, left, and went and explored the mighty Phalen Creek Tunnel instead.


Trip 2 : Ships in the Night
August 28th 2003
Max Action, SaddleSore, and Ghoulia Hawk

Summer was drawing to a close, and Action Squad still had not returned to explore the Lucky 13 Drain. However, I'd kept it in mind, which explained the inflatable rubber raft (with oars!) that I'd bought at a garage sale for $10. So, one fine Thursday night I suggested to SaddleSore that we go explore this massive drain I knew about. She was game, so we called up Ghoulia, who was also up for it once we assured her that, contrary to her dorky friend's warning, there was plenty of breathable air in a drain tunnel.

It was dark when we arrived around 10 PM. We parked the car in a nearby neighborhood, and found our way down the steep, wooded embankment down to the river's edge near the outfall. The raft required inflation, so we set up camp on a concrete slab near a giant rotting carp, and busted out the foot-bellows air pump I'd bought earlier.

Just as we were getting started on the long, boring task of pumping up the raft, we noticed an insanely bright spotlight just up the river. It was occasionally sweeping the river banks on either side, but mainly it probed along the underside of the huge bridge that spanned the Mississippi river, which joins a nicer part of Saint Paul to a scummier section of Minneapolis. From our vantage point, we could not tell if the light was coming from a boat on the water, or from the shore.

Needless to say, this made us nervous at first, until we watched for long enough to determine that it was not moving toward us at all. Nonetheless, we kept a wary eye, ready to flee to cover if the spotlight started coming nearer. This is why, several minutes into our raft-inflating adventure, we immediately saw the figure come up on the other side of the outfall pool, from the direction of the spotlight.

First impressions in the darkness: male, no flashlight, heavier-set, probably not a cop, white, middle-aged, drunk, no, not drunk, but in an exhausted hurry over dark and uneven terrain. I had a couple seconds of thinking time, in which I ran over the situation: there were three of us, but two were smaller females and I'm not exactly a monster myself. I had no weapon on me. Should I say something? Should we hide? Run? Had he already seen us?

In the meantime, the mystery figure had drawn to a stop, stymied by the outfall pool that stood in his way. He may have been considering going up into the drain, for all I know. SaddleSore and Ghoulia were down lower than me, standing on the riverbank. I was standing right up on the concrete lip on one side of the outfall pool, directly across from where the stranger was standing on the opposite lip.

Decision time.

I opted to make a deliberate throat-clearing sound. This let the guy know that 1) we were there, 2) we did not care if he knew we were there, and 3) at least one of us a male. I made damn sure that the noise I made was as deep and guttural as possible, giving the illusion in the darkness of greater size. I stood tall, puffed out my chest a bit to look larger. I'm not sure if I employed these primitive techniques consciously or instinctively.

The figure paused for a moment, and then continued, up and around the outfall. Was he going to come down on our side, or continue on the path up the embankment and away from us?

Before this could be determined, the situation became more complicated. A second figure, similar to the first, appeared across the outfall. Great. How many of these people were there? He was clearly with the first guy, yet far enough behind that it was clear they were not on a social outing.

"Pick up an oar, keep it down for now, and don't say anything," I whispered to my companions.

The oars were hollow plastic, but I hoped they would look intimidating in the dark if these people came over to us. The second figure paused at the outfall pool across from us. I repeated the throat-clearing trick, and then made a decision.

I reached up and clicked on my headlamp, allowing the bright LED beam to settle first on one of the people, and then move slowly, calmly to the other, and then back again. They froze. After a couple of moments, I clicked it back off, and remained standing in place on the concrete lip of the outfall. A second later, the two men continued onward, and took the trail up and away from us.

Not a word had been exchanged.

Your theories are as good as mine as to what these fellows' story was. It seemed likely they were running from the police, but beyond that, it could be anything. Drugs? Murder? Graffiti? Jailbreak? Illegal homosexual activity beneath the bridge? Why were the cops so interested in the underside of the bridge, all the way out over the river? Had these guys been up on it? Did the cops suspect terrorism, what with the major bridge and all? No way to know, but I'm sure it was an interesting story regardless. I'm also pretty damn sure that the strangers were just as relieved as we were when our chance encounter on the riverbank did not lead to anything unpleasant.

After making sure that the men were truly gone, we went back to work inflating the raft. A seeming eternity later, the raft looked pretty pumped up, and I decided to take it out for a solo test drive. My mission: to get familiar with the raft and to see what it was like inside the massive maw of the outfall. I was under the impression from city diagrams of the drain that only the first 20 or so feet of drain were deeply underwater, much like the huge drain that leads under downtown Minneapolis.

I cast off, carefully avoiding the huge dead stinking carp on the landing, and trying not to pop the raft against a rock while still keeping my feet dry. I wound up sort of sitting on one leg, with the other out in front of me. I was quite uncomfortable, but in our haste to get going we'd not bothered airing the raft up completely, so it was sagging and bending in the middle and letting stinking river water in when I wiggled around. I quickly realized there was no way to change my position significantly without taking on tons of water, and that regardless we were going to have to pump the damn thing up a lot more if it was going to be of any use at all.

So I flailed my way back to the beach, where we pumped the raft up a whole bunch more until it was tight, at which point I returned the water once more. I got the hang of the oars a bit, and then headed up into the outfall pool toward the gaping, rectangular drain. The entrance was thick with mist, and the current against me was not enough to stop me, it was enough to turn me sideways repeatedly. The air was heavy and filled with the heavy odor of the living river, with a sharp tang of sewage tunnels: there would be a connection to the sanitary systems somewhere within. As I slid into the drain, my oars ground against the bottom: the water just inside the mouth was only about a foot deep!

I was wearing boots, not waders or sandals, so I tried to navigate using the raft, even though the water was ridiculously shallow. The oars would not work as river-poles: the plastic found no purchase on the slick wet cement of the tunnel floor. The going was slow and I was repeatedly turned back by the rushing water. I couldn't see anything at all due to the thick mist, and had no idea how much further ahead dry land might be found, or if any even existed. I was starting to doubt it, from what I'd seen and inferred about the drain so far.

Finally, about ten feet into the drain, I swore in frustration and deliberately flipped the raft onto its side, landing on my feet in the rushing drain water. The water filled my leather boots in seconds, as it was knee-deep and my boots, alas, were not. Dragging the useless raft behind me, I lurched deeper into the unknown, away from the river and my companions, straining to see ahead more than a few feet ahead.

The tunnel widened considerably, and split into three parallel chambers: a central main tunnel, and an overflow-spillway on either side. I took the right one, perhaps because it looked most appealing, or perhaps because of ingrained American driving rules of the road. There was very little water in this passage, and weird, pale plants sprouted from sandbars in the darkness. Then the three rectangular passages rejoined, forming a single 13-foot diameter circular cement tube. A 6-foot high side tunnel that I passed clearly led to the sanitary system, judging by the smells pouring from the entrance. The rushing water in the main passage was just under knee-level, and there was no way to walk on either side, given the water's depth and the round shape of the tunnel. The hoped-for long, dry walk was looking pretty unlikely. To make sure, I scouted ahead a little further, hurrying a bit because I didn't want to leave SaddleSore and Ghoulia waiting on the riverbank for too long.

After the tunnel went on without changing for awhile, I turned back and headed toward the river. The going was much easier with the current at the backs of my legs, and next thing you know I was back to the raft. The others heard me coming, and someone called out for me to come out. I didn't hear urgency in her voice, so I relaxed on the raft, and let myself float out gently with the current with no lights on.

When I emerged, SaddleSore explained that while I'd been in the tunnel, a jet-ski type thing went flying past toward the bridge, and that the spotlight examination of the bridge had then resumed. Nothing seemed to be happening any more, however. I explained that in order to get in, we'd all have to get our feet and legs totally soaked. But by this point it was getting late, and both my companions had to work in the morning. We decided to call it a scouting night, took a minor eternity to deflate the raft again, and headed back through the woods to the car. Then we went back to my place and watched a post-apocalyptic, warriors-of-the-wasteland 80's movie and it totally kicked ass.

Saddlesore and Ghoulia said they would be free early the next week to return to the drain and explore it. Somehow, I think they saw in my eyes that I wasn't likely to wait until next week to go back.

If so, they were right.


Trip 3 : 13 is Our Lucky Number
August 29th 2003
Max Action & She-Who-Cannot-Be-Named

The very next night, I bailed out on a party at Ghoulia's house, in order to finally conquer this troublesome drain. She-Who-Cannot-Be-Named, who I've known for over five years, was finally ready to come on her first Action Squad mission, so we left the social world behind and went down to the riverbank. We got in without trouble, and began the long upstream trek into the drain system, me in some water shoes I'd bought at K-mart for the occasion after the previous night's failure, and She-Who-Cannot-Be-Named in a pair of my red too-big Converse. I assured her she didn't look like a clown, but the fact remains that she did.

Anyway, we got in without much trouble, climbing a ladder down to the drain mouth in order to avoid having to wade through the deep outfall pool full of stinking river water. And then we explored the drain. The drain was like all drains in its overall monotony: the majority of the trip consisted of slogging upstream in knee-deep water through a concrete tube. The interesting element here was that the tube was 13 feet across, which, while not absolutely amazing, was nonetheless pretty impressive to be in.

The first new point of interest was a side passage that went off to the north. It was made of old red brick, and about 8 feet high. In some places, the brick wall was instead made of chunks of limestone block, and there was a hole in one wall through which an abandoned, flooded old drain was visible. Repeated examination of this space failed to reveal any dead bodies, so we moved on. The tunnel ended in a pretty bizarre drop shaft that I'll try my best to explain.

So there was a vertical shaft with water falling down it into a presumably deep pool at the bottom. When water would overflow from this basin, it would fall down a series of concrete ledges into further basins. After three or four of these, any water left would run into the brick arch tunnel. Feeding into this system prior to the stepped basins but after the drop shaft (duh) was a side tunnel about 6 feet high and 2 and a half feet wide. From the smell, it seemed that this was a sanitary sewer connection.

I would have checked it out, but getting there was a bit of a problem … in order to get into the tunnel, one would have to jump over the final deep basin (which was several feet across), and land on the wet, slippery cement ledge between basins (which was a foot or so wide). If you missed, slipped, or took a step after landing, you'd be in over your head in some pretty gross water that probably had a good deal of sewage particles floating about in it. So, being the kind soul that I am, I left this tunnel for others to explore. I'll put a link right here to the first person to get a trip log and photos of the area beyond this lovely area up on the web. (Go on, sissy: it's actually not that hard to cross, especially if you bring some stuff in with you!)

Meanwhile, we had returned to the main drain tunnel and continued upstream toward the real goal of this trip: the Lucky 13 Drop-shaft Temple. I knew from studying plans of the drain that we would find a "temple" similar to the "Temple of the Drowned Cat" in this drain; however, this one looked to be bigger, as well as more complex, with sanitary tunnels and such added to the mix of tunnels, ladder shafts, drop shafts, and impact cups. I love cool, massive underground architecture, and was excited for this one …

We splashed upstream, the turbulence from our feet and lower legs pushing against the current creating a roiling, rippling disturbance for several feet ahead of us. We saw a toad, who knew nothing about how much further it was to the dropshaft. Or perhaps he knew, but wasn't saying. His name was Bill.

We could hear the dropshaft coming long before we could see it, due to both the acoustics of a 13-foot concrete tube and the low visibility caused by the flash photo ruining mist. On the right side of the tunnel was a side passage; the floor of this side tunnel was about five feet up the side of the wall. Getting up into it was complicated by the fact that water was flowing heavily into the main branch from the side passage, meaning that we had to climb a slippery cement waterfall to get up and in. I got up without too much trouble, but then had to get back down and help boost She-Who-Cannot-Be-Named up.

By this point, we were both more or less soaked (thank Gug for waterproof headlamps and cameras), which was a good thing. It was a good thing, because if we'd reached the Temple still dry, we probably would not have felt as free to frolic around in the awesome underground hexagonal waterfall that was running down the sides of the impact cup platform. Sewer water, schmewer water! A waterfall exists for only two purposes: to climb and to frolic in.

So when we finished frolicking (while making an effort not to ingest any of the questionable water), we set to climbing. There was a ladder up to the impact cup platform. Kind of. (More on this later)

However, She-Who-Cannot-Be-Named was wearing oversized shoes, and this was her first trip. Climbing the ladder up into the waterfall under the circumstances did not hold appeal for her, so we decided that we'd save the upper reaches of the drop shaft chamber for a later trip.

After She-Who-Cannot-Be-Named slipped on her way down into the main tunnel and took a dunking in the cold waters of the main tunnel, we headed back downstream, appreciative of the ease of travel moving with the current instead of against it. Soon we were out under the open sky again, and I was already thinking about coming back again.


Trip 4 : Revenge of the Poopsicles
September 8th 2003
Max Action, Wop, Nelson Mandolin, & Winger

About a week later, Action Squad returned yet again. We got in without incident. The first stop was the weird brick tunnel drop shaft, where Wop almost talked himself into crossing the first basin by walking on a 5 foot length of rusty rebar we'd found. But then he didn't, so you can still go check it out yourself if you're so inclined!

Then it was onward to the Lucky 13 Temple.

This time, I was determined to climb the ladder shaft that started from the impact-cup platform above, and went all the way up to just below the surface. First, we had to get up onto the platform. The only way up was the ladder. Or, the thing that used to be a ladder. This thing was constantly being watered from above, and was so heavily encrusted with minerals and rust that there was not even a space for a foot to fit in between many of the rungs! We managed to clamber up somehow anyway, getting nice and soaked in the process.

From the platform, the first ladder started upward. Looking up the ladder shaft, we could see that the ladder was in sections, alternating from one side of the shaft to the other, with no real platform to stand on in order to transfer from one segment to another. From a distance, it looked annoying, but do-able. A 6-foot tunnel branched off of the vertical shaft to the side, at the top of the first segment; I knew from the maps I'd checked out that this would connect to sewage tunnels of some sort.

So we started upward. I tried not to notice the disgusting slime that coated every surface of the ladder … I knew from experience that this was essentially condensation from sewage mist, but didn't want to mention this to my companions, who were not as psychologically immune to sewage as I have become. (Or as psychotic, some might say.)

However, once we got into the side passage, there was no disguising it. Every surface was coated with sewage slime, and it was hanging from the ceiling in jiggling, disgusting formations … what we call "Snotsicles." I had flashbacks from the most disgusting mission Action Squad had ever gone on: the Stahlmann Brewery Cellars.

Ahead, there was a manhole cover half open in the floor; beneath was a rushing torrent of raw sewage. Mist from the sewer was oozing up through the opening and into our tunnel and lungs. After determining that no, no one wanted to descend and explore the torrent de turds, we continued around the 90 degree left turn, to discover a second sewer manhole cover and a dead end.

We headed back to the ladder shaft and looked upward. The metal ladder rungs were absolutely coated with thick, gelatinous sewer slime. I had gloves on, and was willing to proceed, but my non-gloved compatriots had lost their will to continue. I'd call them pussies, but man, that shit was so damned gross I really can't blame them. Not only was it nasty, but it made the rungs insanely slippery, and the ascent would require switching back and forth from alternating-side ladder segments at least 4 or 5 times. I did not want to risk a death in the Squad, and quite frankly had breathed in enough sewer mist for the day. (I don't even want to think about the potential diseases one could get by inhaling the thick, fetid sewage mist in an enclosed space.)

Besides, by this point it had become almost a tradition to stop short of a full exploration of the drain, going one step further each time we went. This way, we'd always have a little more to explore in the future, when we were in the mood for some underground exploration, but didn't have anything new to check out at the moment.

So we left. On the way back down into the main tunnel, everyone but me managed to slip and slide down into the freezing, knee-deep water on their butts, which was plenty amusing to witness from the warmth of my mostly-dry pants.

At the rate we've been exploring the Lucky 13, the entire drain wouldn't be finished for years, so I've decided that this is a good enough point to post the trip logs and photos taken to date up on the site. Expect future updates, including, hopefully, a collaborative effort with some local drain photographers, who bring tripods, flashbulbs, and other photography paraphernalia along. The pictures they take of drains are awesome … I think that we'll return in the spring, when the weather warms up a bit again. Stay tuned.


Diagram of the "temple" impact cup