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Tunnels, passages lure urban explorers

In a Keeney Quadrangle hallway, Whit Schroder '09 lifts a carpeted hatch and stares down into the dark hole at his feet.

He covers his hair with a faded green bandana and turns to friend Ben Struhl '09.

"See you in a minute," Schroder says.

Struhl watches as his friend carefully descends a fixed ladder into the gap in the floor, vanishing from sight. He closes the hatch, concealing the entrance from public view.

Inside, Schroder's feet hit a soft, muddy surface. He stares down a long, narrow corridor lined with thick pipes that radiate heat throughout the earthen passage. Wiping a few drops of sweat from his temple, he gains his bearings and strides down the stuffy hallway.

This is not Schroder's first time in the famed Keeney caves.

Schroder and Struhl are two of a small but passionate group of students who engage in urban exploration on campus. Along with a few close friends, the pair attempts - and frequently succeeds - at gaining access to tunnels, attics and roofs on campus and around Providence.

"Every day we go by all these buildings and we never think about them," Struhl said. "This is all about looking at the world more deeply."

As Schroder explores the bowels of Keeney, he encounters a series of low-lying pipes that would impede an amateur. But without hesitation, the urban explorer shimmies along the ground, his bandana grazing the pipes as he passes underneath them.

He emerges with both dirt and a smile on his face and continues down the tunnel, making calculated turns until he reaches a more spacious area covered with slanted wooden planks. He climbs up the slope of the longest plank to a raised area with a door, and opens it to find Struhl standing in a bright Keeney hallway.

The two don't have any objective beyond experiencing the thrill of exploring the University's hidden spaces.

"I've always been interested in architecture, so I like to see different areas of the buildings," Schroder said. "But really I just love seeing new things."

Struhl said he likes the connection with the past that urban exploration gives him.

"We find really old and amazing things just lying around in tunnels and attics," he said. "We've found documents from the 1900s, including a 1904 speech given by some professor of minerology."

But not all they find is as welcome as these vestiges of the past. Schroder and Struhl said they constantly see beer bottles and candy wrappers littering the places they explore and observe evidence that past visitors have abused the spaces and the equipment in them.

The explorers said they prefer to treat the environments as museums, typically endorsing a look-but-don't-touch policy.

"People abuse these places, and it can give the rest of us a bad name," Struhl said. "We feel that we have the responsibility to make sure these often-delicate places aren't ruined by drunk students who just happen to stumble in."

Schroder and Struhl have made this careful approach a key facet of their urban exploration activities and were quick to distinguish themselves from trouble-causers and mischief-makers.

"A lot of people do this sort of thing because they want to break the law," Schroder said. "But we explore for the pleasure of exploration itself."

Values like these are part of an understood "code" of urban exploration, a pastime that has gained international prominence since groups from Toronto, Australia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology popularized the activity in the 1990s.

Tenets of the code espoused by these explorers include a keen emphasis on safety and a naturalistic approach that downplays picking locks and promotes alternative methods of entry.

"We know when we're getting in over our heads," said Schroder, who led groups into Crystal Cave at California's Sequoia National Park over the summer. "We're not ashamed to turn around if a situation seems too dangerous."

"Access All Areas: A User's Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration," written by popular urban explorer Jeff Chapman under his explorer alias "Ninjalicious," continues to spread awareness of urban exploration along with his popular Web site,, even since Chapman's death in 2005.

Schroder and Struhl have taken cues from Chapman and other urban explorers by forming an unofficial on-campus club and a Facebook group called "Boundless: The Brown Urban Exploration Society."

"We just started it a couple of months ago as a bunch of friends with similar interests," said Struhl, the creator of the Facebook group. "Now we've got over 40 members, which is tons more than we expected."

The core group of about seven friends has entered and discovered hidden spaces in many campus buildings. They've been to attics in Faunce House and Wilson Hall, roofs of Perkins Hall and Manning Chapel and tunnels beneath Andrews Hall and Wriston Quadrangle. But those are just their favorites.

"We've mapped out most of the campus by now," said Struhl.

Back under Keeney, Schroder and Struhl make their way from house to house, guided by memory and landmark graffiti. Along the way, they discover a mechanical room neither had seen before and they excitedly enter it. Fascinated by what most would consider mundane objects, the two read a maintenance log and try to discern the functions of the many pieces of machinery in the rooms.

After they decide the trip to the Keeney caves has been productive enough, they head back to the door Struhl opened for Schroder, emerging from the caves into an inconspicuous hallway.

The pair said they don't plan to return to Keeney in the near future - instead, they will look for new challenges on and off campus.

"It's as if each new building or door is calling our name," Schroder said. "We almost feel like we have a responsibility to explore each new place that we see."

With new targets in sight and plans to reach them underway, Schroder and Struhl said they and "Boundless" are headed in an exciting but responsible direction.

"We subscribe to the philosophy of Ninjalicious," Struhl said. " 'Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.' "



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