LAKE MICHIGAN -- It feels more like the ocean than Lake Michigan. We're out in the middle of the lake, and there's no land to be seen in any direction.
Attentive Brew City landlubbers recognize the lake's astonishing ability to transform itself into wild shades of blues, greens and grays. But as the S.S. Badger pulls out of its slip near downtown Manitowoc on a June day, Lake Michigan is rocking with activity that makes it look more like the north Atlantic, thanks to high winds, cloudy skies and a steady rain.
"It was very interesting going out today," S.S. Badger director of publicity, Tom Hawley tells us. "We had sustained winds at 70 knots, which is pretty exciting. There were a few water spouts as well. Nothing came down."
He's as calm as can be, but we're thinking, "Thank God, we didn't see those." Luckily, about halfway through our trip from Manitowoc to Ludington, Mich., the sun peeks out, and it looks like we've settled in nicely between two weather fronts.
We car-bound midwesterners rarely consider alternate means of transportation, so when we think of Michigan we often think twice, as visions of hours spent in a hot car in slow-moving Windy City traffic are quickly conjured.
But the S.S. Badger, which plies the waters of Lake Michigan every day from May through September, offers if not a quick, at least a painless, unusual and fun way to make the trip. And many from our area take advantage of this service.
"There are a number of folks that have cottages in Michigan that commute from northern Chicago or Wisconsin, and they use (the ferry) to avoid the hassles of driving through Chicago," Hawley says. "Most of our business is travelers looking at vacation destinations (and) we have some business travel. Over 50 percent of our business is repeat customers."
The ship can carry 180 cars and 625 passengers and makes the journey two times every day. At the height of the summer season, the S.S. Badger is often filled to capacity.
"Certainly there are alternatives to driving around the lake," Hawley admits. "But when you add the carferry experience to a destination it creates part of the vacation memory."
Fathom the fun
Although there's no shuffleboard on the lido deck (no lido deck, at all, in fact), there's plenty to keep the sailing party amused during the four-hour trek. Most of those onboard are families and so much of the entertainment is kid-centered. But, if you're a kid, what's more fun than simply being on the ship?
Well, how about a video game arcade or two movie lounges with a pair of free films on tap during each cruise? There's also a museum that offers a glimpse into the history of carferry service on Lake Michigan, as well as the maritime pasts of Manitowoc and Ludington. Old photos, memorabilia and descriptions bring the past to life. What about free bingo with fun S.S. Badger prizes?
Travelers can bring home a memento of their cruise in the well-stocked Badger Boatique, which stocks clothing, knick-knacks, postcards, newspapers and more.
Save your appetite, because there are a pair of noshing opportunities in the Upper Deck Cafe, which features cafeteria-style breakfast and lunch, and the Badger Galley on the lower level, which has sandwiches, pizza, salads, snacks and beverages. Each eatery has a full-service bar, too.
"When we took over the ship a lot of the passenger space had grown tired and needed some updating and renovation," Hawley says. "So, what we did was try to put in amenities that give a mini cruise experience.
"Food is probably the most popular of all. I don't know what it is about getting on the water but, it's just one of those things, you get hungry. It's all part of creating an experience and providing ease for our customers."
For the full cruise experience, consider renting a stateroom for a private place to rest. Rooms are $32 each way and include a pair of single beds, a sink and a toilet.
In the spring and fall, the ship spends the night in Ludington harbor. You can stay in a stateroom aboard the S.S. Badger for $57. Movies and limited food and bar service are available, and a continental breakfast is part of the deal. If you're making the trip to Manitowoc the next morning, you can keep the stateroom at no extra charge. However, this Boatel service doesn't include the fares for passengers or vehicles.
A long-standing tradition
More than 100 years of Lake Michigan ferry service almost became a thing of the past in the early 1990s, when bankruptcy shut down the company that owned the S.S. Badger.
In 1991, Ludington native Charles Conrad bought the 410-foot ship, which had ceased operations in November 1990. The new company, the Lake Michigan Carferry Service, renovated the Badger, giving the 30-year old ship the necessary facelift it needed to remain competitive in the travel industry between Wisconsin and Michigan.
According to Hawley, Conrad converted the ship exclusively to a passenger and car ferry, ending the railroad operations for which the Badger was built.
New enhancements to the service have triggered a renaissance in ferry travel, but Lake Michigan passenger traffic actually peaked in the 1950s. In 1955, 205,000 passengers made almost 7,000 trips across the Lake in a fleet of three ships.
Passengers on the Badger run the gamut, from business travelers to families. Though a flight to Michigan is much shorter -- though not much more expensive -- Hawley says he sees many return passengers, and the Badger offers "frequent trip" discounts.
For many, the journey is its own reward. For others, the Badger is just a faster way than driving around Illinois.
Norma Standley, a Michigan native, is wrapping up her family's vacation to North Dakota.
"I like it," says Standley. "The last trip out was a little rough. But it's been a lot smoother on the way back."
Standley, who drove the rest of her trip, says she took the ferry both for convenience and for pleasure.
"I don't like to drive around Chicago. We're from Lansing, and if we drove we'd have to go either way north or way south," says Standley.
For 17-year-old Jason Burns, working on the Manitowoc-Ludington ferry is a family tradition, which started with his grandfather.
"(From) my grandpa, to my mom, to all her four brothers and all their kids have worked on (the ferry). I'm just continuing the tradition," he says.
Burns, who is finishing his senior year at Ludington High School and plans on working on the Badger each summer through college, enjoys the camaraderie among the crew.
"It's a fun job with great people to work with," he says, working on the Badger for the second time this summer. Burns works about 48 hours a week, four days a week, in customer service. He makes sure the passengers are handling the travel okay, especially during choppy seas.
Burns says he sees a lot of families and kids riding the Badger, and he and his co-workers try to make the trip as fun as possible with games and entertainment.
"It's pretty affordable for families who can't take an ocean liner cruise," he says. "This is like a mini cruise, where kids can go up on the bow and have a good time."
There have been reports lately that the Milwaukee to Muskegon ferry -- a popular route for decades -- will be resurrected in the coming years. One proposal calls for a high-speed service that would cross the lake in just 2.5 hours.
"There are two proposals in right now," Hawley admits. "Our company has a proposal to offer something a little more traditional, like the S.S. Badger. There's another company that's called Lake Express that's also exploring the possibility. Both are in the exploratory stages, determining markets and feasability for those kinds of operations."
While Hawley says the threat of a fast ferry is obviously a concern to the Badger, the company is sticking to its well-proven route and just looking to expand its services.
"It certainly could (cut into the Badger's ridership)," he says, "but we have a very strong business, and we're very committed to this route: Manitowoc to Ludington. Certainly, we would like to look at other options and that's what we're doing."
Fast ferry facts:
The S.S. Badgers is 410 feet, six inches long
It's 59 feet, six inches wide
The Badger is 106 feet, nine inches tall from the top of the spar to the bottom of the keel
The ship's maximum speed is 17 miles per hour (14.8 knots)
The first cross-lake ferry was the 175-foot John Sherman, built in 1875
Manitowoc is in the central time zone, but Ludington is an hour later, in the eastern time zone
Crossing time is four hours
Groups of 25 or more get special group rates
Frequent sailor discounts are available
Commercial rates are available for semis and oversize vehicles, call for details
There's a 20% discount on the 12:30 a.m. departure. It applies to passenger and vehicle fares traveling one way from Manitowoc. If you're going round-trip, you'll save 10% off your total fare
S.S. Badger Mini Cruises (without vehicle) are available if you are returning within 48 hours. Adults pay $54 and children are $27
For reservations, rates and other information, call 1-800-841-4243 or visit www.ssbadger.com.
Read OnMilwaukee.com's take on the other side of Lake Michigan, in the Ludington area travel guide. Click here.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.