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Ferrying Across Lake Michigan on the SS Badger

On a July day in 2010, I had just finished checking fields at the Mantey’s before noon and had driven into Bay City to check online communication and decide on my next move. From my table at Brewtopia (one of the best coffeehouses ever), I examined the schedule for the SS Badger, a car ferry that I could take across Lake Michigan to the next fields I had to see in Wisconsin. It was expensive, but it would save time, city driving, and some gas (key when you drive an F-150). I booked the passage that was scheduled to leave Luddington at 8 and arrive in Manitowoc five hours later.

Rural Road on the Way

Rural Road on the Way

A delightful drive across central Michigan yielded some nice free photos and a stop in great bookstore, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find an open post office I needed. I had been to Luddington the previous year when my sister and I had taken a joyriding trip up the western Michigan coast. I got dinner at Subway and, since my truck was so close to empty, I filed it up after looping through gas stations, a decision I would come to regret.

So I rolled into a shipyard where the cars were lining up to be loaded into the Badger. I parked my car, and checked in, a remarkably easy process. We weren’t allowed to drive our vehicles on the boat nor would we be allowed access to our vehicles once they were loaded up. Upon hearing that, I jammed as much unnecessary stuff as I could into my bag before I got in line with my ticket to board, making sure I got in front of the seven Amish families who I knew would take forever.

Lighthouse with Well-Wishers

Lighthouse with Well-Wishers

Boarding a boat was universally the same as boarding a plane, only it took longer to get a ship out of port. After we passed the harbor gates, I wandered from one end of the boat to the other, photographing the sunset and taking in the beauty of dimming light on the water. Being on the boat was just like one would imagine it would have been around the turn of the previous century, the black trim, the crew, the stillness of the water. The Badger itself has been in service since the 1950’s, when it ferried railway cars across Lake Michigan before rails were built through Chicago and Gary, Indiana. Even the tracks that were used to load the cars into the ferry remain on the ship.

The five hours grew long, but there was plenty to do on board. I took my photos, watched the news down below decks (a Bernie Madoff special happened to be on), watched part of a movie, and went through the ship’s museum. In the dining room, there was a satellite map of Lake Michigan, with the Badger’s position on it. The ship was traveling at a speed of 18 MPH, or slower than a speed limit on a typical city street. It is eighty miles across Lake Michigan from Michigan to Wisconsin, and even though I was saving a lot of time (and city driving), I was still just chugging along.

Sunset against the boat

Sunset against the boat

We arrived in Manitowoc at what felt like 1 A.M. A smaller boat guided us into the landing, and huge boat awkwardly backed up to a dock that was so small, I could not see how we were going to dock on it. The water seemed to buoy us in, and they hooked us in short order. Surprisingly, there was a huge crowd waiting to make the 2:30 passage back to Michigan. I made my way down as the cars were being driven out by the employees, and thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long until my truck was pulled into one of the five diagonal stalls. When I started to back up, an employee came yelling frantically at me to pull forward instead. It was a mistake of my instincts-besides, the space to go forward was small and it was dark. Blindly, I drove up, and the turn was shorter than I expected.

The first gas station I came to had gas priced twenty cents lower than what it was when I filled up in Michigan. I could have saved at least ten bucks on a tank.

I did have the sense to pick my hotel back when I was in Bay City. Per the recommendation of the Badgers’ website, I selected the Super 8, and called ahead. I thought I would get a late-night, 20% discount, of course not realizing that they get late night passengers all the time. Two bikers guys from the ferry were checking in right after I did, and I watched Sports Center for half an hour before falling asleep.

After six hours of sleep and an hour of breakfast, I returned the road, driving past extra green woodland farms I’d passed in college that frequent the Wisconsin coast. I joined the rush hour traffic to Appleton, and curved back down on to Highway 10, toward Coloma, the site of my first field of the day. (This was my first drive through Omro a town I would come to frequent two years later.) From there, it was on to a new field west of Eau Claire, although I had to stop in Tomah to take a nap. I was exhausted at the end of that day, but it was completely worth it for the time I saved.


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