Summer of 17: Across Lake Michigan

A Ride on the S.S. Badger

A Quick Trip on a Huge Car Ferry

When you're in Green Bay, Wisconsin and you're heading for Kalamazoo, Michigan, you have a number of routes available to you. First, you can drive south on I-94 into Illinois, passing right through Chicago and Gary, Indiana before continuing on into Michigan. Traveling this 359-mile route route would take about five and a half hours and, at 19 miles to the gallon (the average mileage we were getting on the Jucy Trailblazer) combined with a gasoline price of $2.399, would cost around $45.

A second option would be to head north, driving through Michigan's Upper Peninsula, across the five miles of the Mackinac Bridge, and down through most of Michgan into Kalamazoo. The scenery along this route is much nicer, but it's also significantly longer, clocking in around 543 miles with a travel time of nine and half hours and a fuel cost of roughly $69.

But there's a third option—straight across Lake Michigan on the SS Badger. This is the route we decided on, even though it wasn't the shortest option—the journey, including driving time and boat time—was about seven hours. Nor was it the cheapest—gasoline for the driving portions of this route cost us about $24 and the ferry itself was $230 ($59 for each adult, $24 for each kid, and $65 for the Jucy Trailblazer). We were glad that the Jucy was classified as a van, otherwise it would have cost us even more.

While $230 is a pretty steep price to travel across 62 miles, we decided it was worth it. After driving through seven states in less than a week, we were a little burned out and welcomed a short break from being behind the wheel.

The SS Badger is an impressive vessel. But because we were actually riding on her, I couldn't easily get a picture of the full ship. I did get an image of the SS Spartan, a slightly older ship of the same design that's been permanently docked in Ludington, right next to where the arriving SS Badger docks upon arrival.

The SS Spartan, the docked sister ship to the SS Badger.

The SS Spartan, the docked sister ship to the SS Badger.

All Aboard the Badger!

The SS Badger leaves Manitowoc twice daily, once at 2:00 in the afternoon (arriving in Ludington at 7:00 PM) and once at 1:30 in the morning (arriving in Ludington at 6:30 AM). The journey east takes four hours, but since Michigan is in the Eastern time zone and Wisconsin is in the Central time zone, it's really a five-hour trip.

We considered taking the 1:30 AM boat, but passengers aren't allowed access to their vehicles during the crossing, so if we wanted to sleep, we'd have to rent one of the ship's (very small) staterooms for an extra fee. We were already out a good chunk of change for the crossing, so we opted for the 2:00 PM trip, which gave us (we hoped) just enough time to get to our KOA campsite outside of Ludington before the sun went down.

To make everything go smoothly, we had to arrive at the boarding dock in Manitowoc no later than 1:00 PM. Unlike other ferries we've traveled on throughout the world (like when crossing the Cook Strait in New Zealand and when crossing the English Channel in Europe), you're not allowed to drive your own car onto the ferry. After getting sniffed down by a bomb-detecting dog, we parked in a big parking lot with all the other vehicles waiting to be loaded aboard, then checked in and got in line to walk up the stairs to the main deck of the SS Badger.

Loading a semi truck and trailer onto the SS Badger.

Loading a semi truck and trailer onto the SS Badger.

As we waited to board the ship, drivers were backing semi trucks onto the boat for the crossing. The ship's official capacity is 600 people and up to 180 vehicles, which seems like a lot, but when you see a few big rigs roll aboard with plenty of room to spare, thinking about just how much cargo she can carry across the lake is astounding.

Our JUCY Trailblazer driving onto the SS Badger.

Our JUCY Trailblazer driving onto the SS Badger.

Once we were aboard, we had to wait until a small army of hustling crew members drove all the cars and trucks onto the ship. Our Jucy Trailblazer was one of the last vehicles to make it into the cargo hold before departure. We were hoping that meant we'd be one of the first vehicles off the boat on the Michigan side. Shortly after all the cars were on board, the horn sounded and the SS Badger left the port of Manitowoc heading east toward Ludington.

Goodbye to Manitowoc ... and Wisconsin. On to Michigan.

Goodbye to Manitowoc ... and Wisconsin. On to Michigan.

The Boat is a Highway

The SS Badger was built in 1952 and renovated in 1992. The boat was once part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad (weird, I know) because she provided an easier way to get freight to Michigan by avoiding the congested railyards of Chicago. The ship itself is also considered to be part of U.S. Highway 10 (which is also a bit weird).

Highway 10 opened in 1926, the same year as Route 66, and runs 595 miles from Detroit, MI to Fargo, ND. It used to go all the way to Seattle, but (similar to Route 66) was supplanted by the Interstate system over the years. The route was always split into two segments by Lake Michigan, and since the The SS Badger travels this route four times a day for a good portion of the year (May through October), in 2015 the boat itself was designated to be part of Highway 10.

The SS Badger also happens to be the last operating coal-fired passenger steamship still in operation in the United States. This means that as she chugs along Lake Michigan at around 13 knots, she spews out a thick cloud of black smoke.

Coal smoke from the SS Badger billowing out across Lake Michigan.

Coal smoke from the SS Badger billowing out across Lake Michigan.

Keeping Busy on the Badger

I grew up around Lake Michigan and have memories of being out on the lake when the winds were blowing strong. It wasn't pleasant. But for our crossing on the SS Badger, we had great weather—the lake was very calm and smooth. As you can imagine from a ship that can stow multiple semi-truck trailers, the SS Badger is a big ship (410 feet long). Even though big ships are better at mitigating the effects of motion sickness for landlubbers, the ticket offices sell single packets of dramamine. We picked up a few doses, just in case—but we didn't need them.

Riding the SS Badger is a very civilized affair. There are a two different restaurant options (I enjoyed a nice helping of hot wings) and a few different bars serving all sorts of cocktails and beer (including craft beer from the Ludington Bay Brewing Company) as well as booze-free options for the kids.

Four hours is a long time to be on a boat, but the SS Badger is full of things to keep travelers, especially the young ones, occupied. There's a play area for kids, a TV lounge, and a room that shows two different family-friendly movies during the journey. There are plenty of games, too, including a pun-filled Badger Bingo game (Jackie won the double bingo round). The ship also includes a room that holds a maritime museum which was rather interesting. And of course there's a SS Badger-themed gift shop.

Numerous deck chairs rest on the upper deck, just waiting for anyone to come along and lounge. Some people, who I'm guessing have traveled on the SS Badger before, made a mad dash for the bow to snap up a prime spot in one of these chairs. I walked around the upper deck a fe times (1/6 of a mile per lap), glad for a chance to be walking instead of sitting in a van.

Looking east across Lake Michigan from the bow of the SS Badger.

Looking east across Lake Michigan from the bow of the SS Badger.

The ship is also wi-fi enabled, but we never got a good enough signal for it to be of any use. This wasn't all that surprising really. There were a lot of people on the boat trying to log on to the wi-fi, and we were in the middle of Lake Michigan which isn't known for a high abundance of wi-fi hotspots. If you really need wi-fi, I think you can buy time on the ship's satellite network, but we didn't do that, so I don't know anything about how good it is.

Overall, the crossing seemed to go reasonably quickly. We knew we were getting close when our phones picked up a signal from Ludington, just before the ship's horn sounded her arrival.

As I mentioned earlier, we thought that since we were one of the last vehicles to be loaded on, ours would be one of the first off. Turns out this wasn't the case. We waited for a good half hour before the Jucy Trailblazer rolled out of the cargo hold.

The clock was ticking and we were losing daylight, so we quickly saddled up and hit the road—after a leisurely boat ride and a lost hour for crossing a time zone, we still had a half-hour of driving ahead of us to get to our campsite in the Michigan forest. So off we went, resuming the driving adventure.

Thank you to our friends at JUCY for providing us a discount to make our journey possible. All opinions are our own.

is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. He also drinks coffee.

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Summer of 17: Across Lake Michigan
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