If there's one thing around the Twin Cities that Action Squad has had less interest in exploring than storm drains, it would have to be the Lilydale Caves in Saint Paul. I mean, they're cool and everything, but c'mon … they're party caves, and have been for decades. The whole adventure/exploration appeal, which is pretty integral to our motivation, is notably absent when faced with locations that have been a drinking and pot-smoking hang-out for bored teenagers for generations. They're high profile, high traffic, and widely-known.
Even way down in the southern suburbs, we knew of the "Saint Paul Caves." As a 15 year-old, I'd made several trips there with large groups of friends on weekend nights, our goal not to explore our environment, but to explore the effects of various substances and, hopefully, what the girls were hiding behind their clothes. I still remember going off by myself and climbing the steep "Stairway the Heaven" in "Horseshoe Cave" while my friends sat around smoking pot. About halfway up, I became convinced I was going to fall and break myself, but was too stubborn/stupid to call for a hand or at least quit climbing higher. I made it to the top unscathed, but it was a close thing.
So, as I was saying, the Lilydale Caves held little appeal for us. However, we heard (from some folks that we'd gone on missions with in the past) that one of the cave systems was quite extensive, less high traffic, and featured three levels of caves. The notion of a multi-level brewery cave was tempting to us, and one night Fuck, Cap, and I set out to find it.
This proved not all that difficult. The Yoerg caves are the northernmost of the Lilydale caves, and are set apart from the others by a road. This slight separation seems to have prevented a lot of drunk/high kids from ever finding them, even though they are easy to get into and not at all hard to find. Apparently, the slightly easier to find caves further south have been enough to satisfy the needs of the majority of the spray-paint and beer can youth brigade.
This isn't to say that the Yoerg Caves aren't party caves: they are. We were able to follow a well-trod path into the woods directly to one of the cave entrances.
The main level of the system consists of a series of banquet-hall sized, interconnected manmade caves. We saw a good amount of the expected spray-painted graffiti and other evidence of partygoer habitation, but heard nothing as we ventured deeper into the system. In the first of the main caves, we noticed a perfectly round hole in the ceiling, roughly 30 feet above our heads. This was in the middle, not near a wall, and we quickly gave up the idea of somehow getting up into it. Hopefully, there was another way to the second level elsewhere in the system.
As we continued eastward, we went through a couple more main caves before finding another one with a hole in the ceiling. This one, however, came complete with a rickety wooden ladder, balanced on a 5-foot heap of miscellaneous old equipment and trash. We opted to finish exploring the level we were in before heading up. Just as we were about to move on, however, we heard faint voices. Quickly, we turned off out lights and crept deep back into the cave, where we ducked down behind a big rusty iron hulk of something once used in brewing. It became clear quite quickly that the interlopers were not police officers, the shrill giggling of nervous teenage girls and the voices of young males trying to bravely comfort them, in voices nearly as high-pitched as the girls'.
We let them get to the cave next to ours before we began Operation Get Rid of Those Pesky Kids. Sticking my head up over the hollow iron oven thingy, I let out a moan, just loud enough for them to barely hear (there are no real echoes in these caves; the sandstone dampens sound considerably). One of them heard me, and shhhed his companions. They stopped walking; listening. We were silent. After a few moments, they stated moving again, their nervous laughter picking up a bit in intensity.
After about a minute, I did it again, but the moan this time little louder and a little longer. This time, they all heard … but it was a low, subtle sound, easy to believe was the wind, or one's imagination. So, after a much longer period of careful listening, they again started moving. All their banter had stopped, however, and they were sticking close together.
We let a few minutes go by, and eventually they made their newfound slow, careful way into the cave we were trying to smother our laughter in. They went past the cave to the next one over. We waited, knowing they'd be back. Within a few minutes, they returned, their manner somewhat more relaxed. One of them made a quiet joke, inspiring some nervous laughter. They started into our cave.
I began to moan, low and quiet. Slowly, I increased the volume, until they noticed it and froze. This time, however, I let the moan slide up into an all-out, full-volume, bloodthirsty howling shriek, at the same time wildly bashing the hollow iron equipment in front of me with a good-sized board. Over the noise I was making and Fuck & Cap's laughter, we could easily hear the receding sounds of terrified shrieking and footsteps pounding on the sandy floor as the poor kids sprinted back the way they'd come, completely and utterly scared shitless. It was pure gold. And hey, we probably did the kids a favor; they'd have a great story to tell their buddies the next day in junior high. After a few tellings and the amazing constructive powers of memory, they'd no doubt be regaling their peers with a tale of pursued by an army of cave-dwelling mutants with knives for hands.
Cheap thrills over, we resumed our exploration of the cave system. The rickety ladder proved stable enough to bear our weight, and we climbed to the top one by one. The ladder reached only to the bottom of the hole, which was through about 4 feet of sandstone. To get up into the space above, we had to stand on the top of the ladder and kind of wriggle up through the hole, with a few cruddy handholds that had been chopped out of the sandstone. Not too hard, but not a cakewalk, either.
The "second level" turned out to be a single tunnel running east and west above the main caves below. It was not very long, and at the end we found a hole in the floor similar to the one we'd come up through. The important difference was that this hole, in addition to allowing one to fall 30 down to the floor of the cave below, also continued upward about 15 or 20 feet as a vertical shaft. To get up to the "third level," one had to climb straight upward, using a rotted old rope and crumbling sandstone hand/foot holds … and if you slipped, you fell however far you'd climbed, plus the 30 feet from the second level to the hard ground of the main level. Ouch. Fuck and Cap were not inclined to climbing the shaft, and as much as I didn't want to, I knew I had to know what was up there.
So with a nervous stomach, I started upward, trying not to use the rope at all, as I had no idea how sturdy it and the bar it seemed to be tied to were. The ascent was actually not very hard, and soon I was up and in another tunnel, continuing in the direction the first one had been heading. Only 15 feet or so down, the tunnel turned into a narrow tube, which I wiggled into for 5 feet or so. It bent 90 degrees and headed straight upward, leading outside at the top of the bluff. Man, what a pain in the ass just to get to such a pointless little space. Oh well.
I can't remember if going up the tube was physically possible or not. Either way, I didn't care to go up, so I wiggled back out of the tube and carefully climbed back down to the second level.
We all got back down the ladder alive, and continued our exploration of the cave system. We discovered that the western caves featured cool tunnels and ledges about 10 feet up from the ground, which could be accessed by climbing up on the old metal barrels found throughout the system.
It was about this time that my trusty, crappy automatic camera finally had enough abuse and ground to a halt, its innards choked with fine sand. Damn it.
Finally, we made the discovery that, if you are willing to consider the single tunnels above the main caves "levels," the system is actually a 4-level system: there are a few water pipe tunnels running beneath the main level.
It was as we exited the sub-cave tunnels that we heard new intruders, and went on alert, knowing it might simply be more kids, but it could also be cops looking to chase kids out of the caves. The silent, steady approach of the 2 people and the way they fanned out as if doing a sweep put our backs up, and we began easing toward the "back door" entrance/exit we'd found.
When a squawk of a radio made it clear that our visitors were indeed of the police persuasion, we did a fast, quiet fade out the back door, into the woods, across the road, and into the car. Like ninjas, lemme tell ya. Heh.
Party caves though they might be, the Yoerg Brewery Caves' combination of historical interest & interesting layout make it a place that I wouldn't mind going back to sometime, although we'll probably wait until we're at a loss for new places to explore. Next time, however, I'm keeping my camera well protected from that damned killer cave sand. Hmm, and maybe we'll bring halloween masks and other props, with which we can more interestingly scare the pants off of already-nervous kids looking for a place to smoke a joint ...