Steve Duncan is a sewer expert with grace. While telling stories about being knee-deep in human waste around the world, recounting details about being arrested for exploring catacombs and shit-mucked tunnels from Moscow to Canada, you could swear it's Owen Wilson playing the role of a professional sewer explorer, a bon vivant of the underground. When I first read about Steve in the New York Times, I imagined him as the loner type who would find solace in dark tunnels infested with rats. But when I met him, Steve surprised me. He was charismatic, tall, had a degree from Columbia University, and when he spoke about muddling through rivers of shit to find the hidden treasures that make up this city’s foundations, it sounded sort of sexy.
I met Steve online while looking up NYC water tunnels for an urgent assignment from my editor. My job was to find a cool place to shoot and use our new waterproof gear and Sony's Action Cam (like the kind used in the video at the bottom of this post). Because entering NYC tunnels is illegal, we had to pick a day when the police were less guarded and we wouldn’t get caught, so we decided on January 3, the coldest day of the year.
We drove uptown to the Saw Mill River, which flows beneath Yonkers on New York City’s outskirts. Once known as Nepperhan Creek, the river has a long history. As Steve put it, “You go back in time as you move farther along the river, from the early 20th century to the 19th century, all the way up to the 18th century. The Saw Mill River used to be a stream that brought water to Native American villages, so it was an essential part of people’s lives long before pioneers settled New York. In other words, it’s an old-timer among old-timers that has watched this city grow since before it was even called New York.”
Once we ventured deep enough into the tunnel that sunlight was no longer following us, I lost all feeling in my toes. The water was below freezing, and my three layers of socks became soaked in 30 seconds. With purple feet, my crew and I followed Steve deeper underground. “Not everyone thinks about going to explore underground. But I still think it’d be better if people knew more about what lies beneath their feet,” Steve said. "If they don’t, then it’s easy to forget what exactly is moving according to what system. Some people only become interested once their house floods, but by that point it’s already too late.”
Once I had recovered from my experience underground it was much easier to appreciate these words, not just as a warning about sewers and floods but as a general message about the benefits of exploration in all aspects of life.