August 19, 2022

Ottumwa native creates underground cave maze

You’ve heard of cornfield mazes. They’re sort of fun, and you can get lost, turning this way and that. Well, imagine the same type of maze, only underground and hand dug from sandstone. Called “Sandland,” it’s located in Western Wisconsin, and is the brainchild of Ottumwa native, Eric Sutterlin. Don’t try to find Sandland on the map and go there for a Sunday afternoon spelunking adventure, because Sandland is sort of secret. Not ready for “Prime Time,” Sandland is a “labor-of-love” for a select group of carefully vetted people dedicated to creating their own, private, underground maze.

As a child, Eric Sutterlin’s father, Dr. Siegfried Sutterlin, who was a professor at Indian Hills Community College, would take young Eric around Ottumwa in the car so Eric could map the streets and alleys of Ottumwa. During a snowstorm, Eric and his neighbor friend, Zach Richards, spent days building a complex system of tunnels, forts and snow high-rises.

In high school, Eric had a perfect SAT math and English score. He was All-State Violist four times and composed music for a string orchestra when he was 12 and 16, which were performed in school. As the youngest musician and only child, he participated in an American String Teachers Workshop in Graz, Austria. He credits his late mother, Joan, for much of his talent, success and creativity.

At Iowa State University, he tested out of a calculus and economics course. He has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from ISU, and a Master of Engineering in Professional Practice from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

As a reward for perfect grades his freshman year at ISU, his father took him to Paris. There, Eric saw a manhole cover and said, “I wonder what’s down there?” So he explored the catacombs of Paris and dozens of other undergrounds around the world. Eric has just finished his 10,000th geocache find. “Geocaching” is an outdoor recreational activity in which participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) to hide and seek containers, called “geocaches,” at specific locations all over the world.

Eric has explored dozens of metros and mapped numerous caves. He has also e-biked through Boston, Denver and many other cities. He took a regular bike ride through the streets of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. His favorite city in North America is Guanajuato, Mexico, an old mining city from the 1500s, where car traffic is routed through a system of one-way tunnels. The vast majority of surface streets are staircases for pedestrians, because the terrain is too steep for vehicles. On one such street, Alley of the Kiss, the balconies are close enough for people to reach across and kiss.

After exploring caves and undergrounds and mapping all these highways and biways, the next logical step would be what? You got it. Dig your own cave maze. Eric found suitable sandstone ground in Western Wisconsin and went to work with his group of equally enthusiastic and dedicated cave diggers, inventors and hard workers.

So far there are 600 feet of tunnels, including a three-dimensional spaghetti-bowl crawl maze designed to be confusing, and a 90-foot sand haulage ramp with a mine-cart type train and winch to extract sand. There is a septagonal (seven sided) “Doughnut Room” with identical tunnels off each of the seven segments, designed to confuse and surprise visitors as they pick one and discover where it leads. The cave diggers enjoy creating both interesting features and confusing tunnel configurations that leave the visitor disoriented, surprised and befuddled. What’s around the corner isn’t what’s expected.

Sandland has a website at http://tunnelcity.com, an epic adventure game at http://drainfreak.com/sandland, and a documentary at: https://tonysaundersphoto.com/documentary. Donations are accepted and appreciated. If you’re up for adventure, hard work and something unique as well as challenging, Sandland needs diggers. See Sandland’s website.

Contact Curt Swarm at curtswarm@yahoo.com