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Urban exploration: Kagge's notes from the underground

Posted: Apr 21, 2011 01:57 am EDT

The first in the world to do all three Poles (climbing Mount Everest, skiing from land to the South- and North Pole), "the scariest moments of my life have not been in the wilderness, but in the cities," Norwegian pioneer Erling Kagge told ExplorersWeb in an interview.

This winter the great adventurer decided to face his darkest fear and here follows his report.

Notes from the Underground
By Erling Kagge

The going is slow when you hike on slippery shit, toilet paper and brown water, but we were never in a hurry on this trip. We started out in Northern Bronx, around 242 Street in Van Cortland Park.

It was late Monday December 13 and we went into the sewage system from a little lake in the park, next to an area for bird watching. It was pretty dark and snowing. I like snow, but on this occasion it could be bad news. New York is a man-made wilderness, nature has been removed and the city lacks absorptive earth, so snow and rain can easily cause sudden flooding.

I had never been in a sewage tunnel before, but felt relived as soon as the lake disappeared behind us. Most accidents do not happen on expeditions, but in the kitchens back home, and mysteries can be hidden in your backyard.

The architecture below, a living organism

We were walking southwards during the night through the park, about 12 feet below. After a while we reached the sewage tunnels that follows Broadway, and followed them towards Harlem River.

It was pitch dark, foggy, smelly and the tunnel was nicely rounded and made by faded red bricks. Far into the system the bricks became more polished, a mellow glow in the lights from our torches from the leftovers that have passed all the way up to the ceiling during floods, for more than a hundred years.

An area like this is obviously made for functionality, as everything else below the asphalt, and not esthetics, but it still has its own beauty. A negative beauty; in the sense that it is great not because of what is there, but because of everything that is not.

No light, hardly fresh air, limited with colors and hardly any silence. The natural and real have ceased to exist. The architecture below ground is still a living organism; tunnels are being remade and buildings built. How you react to it all is a tiny reminder of the old saying: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Cries in the jungle

Whenever we passed a manhole we could hear cars driving; dunks when the wheel hit the manhole covers and a distant sound from its metal vibrating, and from the car when it drove down the road.

There was also the far away rumble of the subway that follows Broadway above the street around 20 meters straight up from where we walk. And then it was almost quiet for a short time.

Around our legs and sometimes our hips there was the sound of shit, toilet paper, an occasional condom and water drifting, slightly faster than we walked. On our backs we had a rucksack containing a sleeping bag, camping madras, a cooker, air meter, hooks to lift manholes; more or less everything we needed for the whole trek, except food.

Trekking New York style

We are Steve Duncan and me. Steve is a well seasoned urban explorer, urban historian and a really, really great guy. Steve had the expertise, and I had the idea. My plan was to be two, but this was New York and we ended up doing it in New York style, not the Norwegian way.

Sometimes it was only the two of us, on other occasions we were joined by Alan Feuer, Will Hunt, Liz Rush, Brent Baugham, Andrew Wonder or Jackie Lyden. All great people that I got to know while on the trek.

A few years before I had fallen in love with the opportunity to see New York, in a way no one else had; from the inside out, from different angles, in several senses while crossing it, became, for me, about as inspiring as sailing the oceans, walking to the poles and climbing Everest.

The next expedition is somehow always the most interesting. I asked Steve, and he said yes right away.

The team and the challenge

Many people have visited the underground. Some people live there. Books and articles have been written and TV-documentaries have been made to capture snapshots of their lives.

No one had walked for days, part explorer, part inhabitant through the underground city before. Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens via its mythic tunnel systems, made for sewage, train, water and the subways, and an occasional bridge.

Nobody cares about these areas, as long as what they transport floats easily through. People in New York look ahead, and up, not down below.

Steve and I wanted it to be an investigation of the unseen city and a visitation with the people who live there. We both love New York City and we believe people will benefit when they realize they're a part of an interactive ecology. And most importantly; I wanted to have a good time with Steve; and Alan, Jackie, Liz, Brent, Andrew and Will when they joined parts of the expedition.

Five days underground

We walked down to Exterior Street, around 230th street and emerged through a manhole. Then we hiked down to Harlem River and over to Manhattan, the world's most densely populated island, the Kuwait of USA.

We did not have a proper plan or a time schedule. Steve and I wanted to play it by ear, and not go for the easiest solutions. Manhattan can almost be crossed through a subway tunnel, but we wanted a variety of tunnels. We wanted to have fun. Steve is a good guy to have fun with.

We ended up spending about five days on the trek. Going into Harlem where we took the metro down to 125 Street to explore the tunnels below Columbia University. Eventually we lay down to sleep. We could hear people practicing French above us, so we presumed we were close to the French Department.

Afterwards we headed for Central Park to check out some underground areas with our crowbars, and then to Lower East Side to hike and run in the subway tunnels.

Veteran's advice: "Don't get hit by a train"

I guess every child has been thought to never jump down from the platform onto the tracks, so I found it exiting to let the train pass instead of entering it, and then run into the tunnel.

I had asked Moses Gates, another experienced urban explorer a few days prior to the expedition if he had any advice on how to be safe in the subway tunnels: Do not get hit by a train. Do not touch the third rail. And don't do any multitasking while walking on active tracks.

A good thing with being on an expedition, as most explorers and adventurers have experienced is that it is existentialism in practice.

Philosophers and others write and do research on existentialism, but on an expedition you practice it. In the subway tunnels it is not a theory any more. You are fully present in your own life. After being on the move for a day and a night I stopped thinking about time as a linear matter. The outside world somehow ceased to exist. We were above ground every day to change tunnels, but most of the time was spend beyond day and night.

The tribes: Brooklyn the cat woman

We decided to sleep whenever it was deserved and then started to look for a good place to camp in a tunnel. We walked through Westside tunnel from around 125th down to 37th street.

Below 100th Street we celebrated the 50th birthday of Brooklyn, a great woman we met while we hiked in the same area in August. She has lived in the tunnel since 1982 when she followed the cats she was feeding during summer to find a warmer place to sleep when winter came.

She still lives with many cats. We brought her cream cake, my daughters had made chocolate for her and lots of booze and the party almost lasted until breakfast.

I asked Brooklyn why she appeared to be happier than the people I had met above ground, and she replied: Because I appreciate what I have.

Somehow she was echoing Buddha 2500 years previously, and had a better answer on how to be happy than most other New Yorkers, or for that matter Norwegians; moderate your desires, want what you have and you'll have what you want. Meanwhile, above ground we may be living in the first society were people are somehow unhappy for not being happy.

Crux: Canal street

A few hours later we headed out of the tunnel to explore water and sewage tunnels around Underhill Avenue in Queens, the train tunnels in East New York in Brooklyn, climbed Williamsburg Bridge to enjoy the scenery of Manhattan, and get a proper view of Brooklyn and Queens where we were going.

The most complicated area was the sewage system around Canal Street in Soho. It is the oldest in town, from 1811 and we popped a manhole in Green Street to get in. The tunnel was about four feet high when we started, made of concrete, but after a while it became lower, about one foot.

Steve and I lay down and crawled through the raw sewage. We had shit not only on our chests and waders, but also on our backs and hats from the ceiling. I saw a bullet just a few inches off my nose while crawling, I guess it had a story to tell, but I did not pick it up.

All my energy was needed to sneak through to the tunnel under Canal Street. There the tunnel is wider, and made of the same red bricks as up in Bronx. The sewage moved slowly, so it is a nice area to live for cockroaches and rats.

There were truckloads. Unfortunately it moved so slow that it eventually stopped, caked with so much feces that we sank deep in like it should have been made of heavy duty porridge. Empty bottles and dishwater was moving with slow pace at the top, but the shit below that level became an impassable range and we had to turn around.

Reaching the Atlantic

Above ground again, a couple of hours later, we got our waders off, I hit my hat and jacket hard a few times on some stairs nearby to get rid of some of the shit. Then I put the jacket and hat on again, we got a taxi and headed on into the morning of lower Manhattan towards Brooklyn.

We ended up as we had hoped through the tunnels around Brookville Park in Queens and eventually into the Atlantic; Jamaica Bay.

Back on land Andrew suggested: Next time, you guys should go somewhere crazy -- like the past. I replied that we had just been to the past. In New York the past seems a foreign country.

The last terra incognita

I have been asked what this adventure was about. The underground is, according to Will Hunt who writes a major book on the subterranean world, the last frontier in exploration.

As a matter of principle I don't believe in a fixed number of final frontiers, but somehow it makes sense to at least call it one of several last frontiers. A major part is not properly mapped. It is one of the last white spots remaining on the map. Nobody knows how many tunnels there are in New York. No one knows how many people that live there. It is terra incognita.

So urban exploration may not be about exploration in a proper sense of the word; going to places almost untouched by man. It is more about rediscovering. I am surprised by the lack of curiosity people show for the underground. There is even hardly a surveillance camera in this area, which would make the city if it was turned 180 degrees upside down.

An interesting question, which may give the answer to the previous question, is whether all the shit, dirt and garbage in big cities are the reality, or if it is hiding the reality. Well, after five days in it I vote for the former.

Born in Oslo in1963, Erling Kagge is a Publisher. He has three daughters; Nor, Solveig and Ingrid. Kagge reads a lot, mostly on philosophy and art, in addition to contemporary fiction and old classics. "Philosophy for Polar Explorers," is his latest book. Kagge also recommends 'Atlas of Exploration' (Oxford University Press): "It gives at least me many new ideas on what can be done by people like us, based on and beyond what people have already achieved."
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The underground sewers below New York City.
courtesy Erling Kagge, SOURCE
Moving through the sewage in SoHo, lower Manhattan.
courtesy Erling Kagge, SOURCE
Erling Kagge in the train tunnel.
courtesy Erling Kagge, SOURCE
Part of the expedition in a train tunnel around east New York.
courtesy Erling Kagge, SOURCE
In 1993 Erling Kagge skied solo from Berkner and completed the first unsupported unsupplied trip to the South Pole. "The scariest moments of my life have not been in the wilderness, but in the cities," he told ExplorersWeb in an interview.
courtesy Erling Kagge, SOURCE
We have reached the Atlantic, the geographical goal of the expedition.
courtesy Erling Kagge, SOURCE
Walking out of Westside tunnel, with ice hanging from the ceiling.
courtesy Erling Kagge, SOURCE
Waterway right outside the underground tunnel around New York City.
courtesy Erling Kagge, SOURCE
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