By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Apr 21, 2009 at 2:38 PM
Every April the Lake Express ferry re-emerges from the depths of its winter lair in the Menomonee Valley and makes a spring  journey eastward to the thawing shores of Lake Michigan.

The Milwaukee-based ferry is the Midwest's only high-speed auto / passenger ferry (it accommodates 250 passengers and can hold 46 vehicles and 12 motorcycles), and it's an exciting voyage via the narrow waterways that empty into the Great Lake, as it means a warmer season is on the horizon and a renewal of outdoor tourism in Wisconsin.

With terminals in both Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich., Lake Express makes multiple daily trips across Lake Michigan.

The ferry launches Friday, May 1, but before it officially sets sail, it welcomes your aboard to kick off the 2009 travel season at a community open house this Saturday, April 25 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Lake Express Milwaukee terminal, 2300 S. Lincoln Memorial Dr. The event offers food and drink from Sprecher Brewery, Bryon's Beer Garden & Bistro, Toppers Pizza, as well as several Michigan-based restaurants.

In 2008, Lake Express received its Travel Green Certification by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. In order to qualify, an applicant must earn a minimum of 30 points from a long checklist of eco-friendly requirements and be certified by Wisconsin Environmental Initiative, an independent third party that verifies Travel Green Wisconsin applicants.

Lake Express scored at 65, partially in thanks to the four 3,000 hp diesel engines that get passengers to the other side of Lake Michigan in 2.5 hours -- a fraction of the time it would take to drive the 300 miles around.

The ferry was especially green in areas like water conservation, waste water management, energy efficiency and air quality.

Aaron Schultz, director of sales and marketing for Lake Express, says that the ferry conforms to current Environmental Protection Agency air standards, and takes more than 25,000 vehicles off the road every year.

The terminal itself, with loads of natural light, controlled heating and cooling systems and motion lights, is energy efficient, too.

"Our overflow parking lot is a grass-covered green space by design -- the lot was constructed with an underlayment that can support the weight of vehicles (without concerns of sinking, ruts or mess) while maintaining the grass growing on it," he adds.

The ship's crew, he says, adheres to a strict "leave no trace" set of operating principles while on the water and t he Lake Express also serves as a monitoring station for UW Great Lakes Water Institute, taking air and water samples continuously during all lake crossings. UW researchers use the data to study the lake, its health and its impact on the environment.

Schultz calls the company's efforts acts of conservation and stewardship.

"It’s just our mission here. We operate on the lake, and we need to take care of it because if we destroy it, we can’t take customers out to enjoy it."

Lake Express runs May through November. A classic cabin seating for adults (one way) is $81, premier cabin seating is $97 and the vehicle deck is $90.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”