Pushing off in a boat onto a body of water where the far shore is unseen has always been a leap of faith — and an adventure. Though we lack an ocean nearby, we have the inland seas of lakes Superior and Michigan nearby, and they also fire the imagination. A crossing doesn’t have to be a fearful face-off with waves and weather. That’s where a grand car ferry like the S.S. Badger comes in. She first plied Lake Michigan in 1953, transporting rail freight and passengers between Ludington, Mich., and the Wisconsin ports of Manitowoc, Milwaukee and Kewaunee.
Surviving the decline of rail traffic and a brush with the scrap yard about 25 years ago, the S.S. Badger still proudly crosses Lake Michigan between Manitowoc and Ludington about 490 times per year.
She is the largest car ferry ever to sail Lake Michigan, providing a pleasant shortcut across the lake. The Badger, the only coal-fired steamship operating in North America, offers a taste of the past with state-of-the-art amenities.
The 410-foot-long S.S. Badger represents the maritime link of U.S. Hwy. 10 between Wisconsin and Michigan. She sails at an average speed of 18 miles per hour (15.6 knots) with a crew of 30 to 40.
A typical four-hour, 60-mile cruise ferries up to 600 passengers and 180 cars, tour buses, RVs, motorcycles, bicycles, commercial trucks and wind turbine cargo across Lake Michigan from mid-May through late October.
The ferry makes two round-trip crossings each day until Sept. 1, followed by one daily round-trip until Oct. 26.
We drove into Manitowoc on a warm and sunny July day. Once aboard, we enjoyed watching the skilled crew back all manner of vehicles onto the ship, including some big rigs. Once a vehicle was parked, the crew ran to the parking lot to get the next vehicle in line.
The S.S. Badger headed out on time. The sun shone bright on the vast blue lake while gulls wheeled and squawked overhead. The lake breeze was persistent and cool, but we were comfortable sitting in an open bow deck chair with a sweatshirt or jacket. It was easy to circle the ship on the outside decks, or just find an empty chair to get lost in the far horizons.
Inside, the ship features a deli-style snack bar, buffet-style dining area, 24 private staterooms, upper-deck lounge, aft end lounge, video arcade, children’s playroom, gift shop, two TV lounges and a movie lounge. Games like bingo or trivia attracted passengers of all ages.
As the Michigan shore appeared, excitement grew, as on any impending landfall. Ludington came into focus as we approached the harbor entrance. Children ran to greet the ship and wave from shore as they have in these ferry port cities for over a century.
Through its daily rhythms of loading, sailing and unloading, the S.S. Badger preserves a link to a colorful maritime heritage that still thrives today.
Fares and schedule
The S.S. Badger makes two round-trip crossings each day until Sept. 1, followed by one round-trip until Oct. 26. Pricing options include frequent sailor and group discounts, round-trip mini-cruises and an onboard Badger B&B fall package that includes a meal. Prices vary depending on type of vehicle. This summer, the ferry company is offering a $198 special for two adults and one auto for a one-way crossing. For details about fares and schedules, visit www.ssbadger.com.
What to do in Manitowoc
Wisconsin Maritime Museum: One of the largest maritime museums in the Midwest and a division of the Smithsonian, the museum provides a hands-on look at sailors, shipbuilders and submarines. The U.S.S. Cobia, moored next to the museum, is a restored World War II submarine open to the public (1-866-724-2356; www.wisconsinmaritime.org).
Mariners Trail and Rawley Point Recreational Trail: The 7-mile paved Mariners Trail is a biking and hiking path linking Manitowoc and Two Rivers, offering the state’s longest uninterrupted views of Lake Michigan. It connects to the Rawley Point Trail, a 6-mile path that winds through Point Beach State Forest, which has 6 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline (www.visitmanitowocwisconsin.com).