We were heading West from Michigan and found ourselves reluctant to drive around the south shore of Lake Michigan. Besides, we were heading for northern climes to escape the hot weather. Queuing up for the S.S. Badger
So we determined to go North, continuing our exploration of the Great Lakes. After all, we do enjoy traveling by different kinds of transport. When we learned that we could take a ferry across Lake Michigan, our decision was easy!
We spent the night before our trip in Ludington, Michigan, a charming tourist town at the edge of Lake Michigan. The hospitality industry along the Great Lakes is thriving, and we were happy to find a room for the night at the Pier House, which we had selected because it is close to the ferry dock. We had a comfortable room in an old but refurbished, well-kept and very pleasant motel.
The SS Badger is the last coal-fired passenger vessel operating on the Great Lakes. With its twin, the SS Spartan, now retired from service and docked in Ludington, it began lake service in Passenger boarding 1952. Both ships have reinforced hulls to maneuver through ice in winter.
Boarding began at about 7:30 for our 8:45 departure. Our route to the boarding area led us past a bakery with delicious pastries. We planned to eat them sitting in the truck waiting to drive onto the ferry, but the boarding process was so quick and easy that the truck disappeared into the bowels of the ship before we realized it, so we sat outside the waiting room watching the boarding process and nibbling Danishes.
Generally on car ferries we drive ourselves into the ship, guided by hand signals from crewmen. Here the capable crew members loaded the vehicle deck while we joined a queue of passengers and walked directly into the passenger area. For this three-hour crossing we had our choice Coast Guard Station of several indoor lounges where we could sit comfortably and read or just watch the passing watery scene. For those who are easily bored, the ship offered a cafeteria serving breakfast, at least two movie lounges (one with child-appropriate films), a children's play room, Bingo games with prizes of SS Badger plastic souvenirs, passenger walkways stretching the entire deck, and a gift shop where one could buy everything from socks embroidered with SS BADGER to seasick medicine to magazines and books of local interest (e.g., Great Lakes history, crime novels set in Great Lakes ports).
Any Coastie familiar with the old Paint and Color Manual will recognize the traditional and distinguishing colors of Coast Guard Station Ludington, with clear white walls and a maroon roof. This station has been around since 1879, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Captain Docking the Ship
Maybe it was just great good luck, but the crossing was calm and smooth with hardly a sense of waves. The coal-fired engine seemed almost silent, although when we went through a patch of thick fog, the ship's foghorn emitted businesslike blasts which must have startled any fishermen in the vicinity (which was, after all, the point).
A highlight for us was to see the real, working after steering wheelhouse with its polished brass telegraphs and nautical equipment. Then, as we began to enter the harbor in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, the captain appeared and operated the equipment and we slowly backed into the ferry slip, where already passengers for the return trip were waiting in line.
Debarking was just as smooth as the beginning of the voyage. By the time we walked down the stairs and out onto shore, we could see our truck, already parked and ready to go.