SS Badger is straight out of the past and might be from the future

Really big boats are called ships- right? Not necessarily. Fresh water vessels, regardless of size, are always called boats. Salt water vessels are ships. I found this out in Ludington, Michigan while speaking with Lynda Matson, Vice President of Customer Relations for the SS Badger.

A trip with friends had me out camping and riding bicycles between the Wisconsin-Michigan ferries; Lake Express and SS Badger. I have a compulsion to make work out of fun time and scheduled an interview with Lynda to learn a little more about the Badger. Our conversation will air in Milwaukee on 89.7 WUWM’s Lake Effect during our “Manitoweek” later in September, but this is a brief synopsis of what I learned.

Here are the boat’s quick stats…Built in 1953 by the Christy Corporation the SS Badger was designed to transport rail cars across Lake Michigan. The Badger has sister ships the SS Spartan (docked near the Badger and used for spare parts) and the SS City of Midland (which has been converted into a barge). When constructed each boat was seven stories high and 1.5 football fields long. The Badger can hold 600 passengers and 180 passenger cars but can and does transport larger wheeled vehicles.

I wanted to make sure to take a trip on the Badger before the end of 2012. The EPA has informed the Badger that after December next year it’s coal fueling license will not be renewed. The boat is the last remaining coal fired boat in the United States and possibly the world. That’s not a typo, this floating city is built on coal. No matter how much a person wants to debate nostalgia versus contemporary technology; burning coal isn’t doing the environment any favors. I wanted to make sure I took a ride the yester-way before anything changed on the Badger.

Packing up to make the 8:30am boat.

Saying goodbye to Ludington for Wisconsin is bittersweet as it’s a bustling vacation town with shops, restaurants, bars, and the oft sold-out campsites at Ludington Beach State Park. As an onboard parting gift to ourselves we stocked up with a growler of kolsch-style beer from the Jamesport Brewing Company. In an antique shop I also found a postcard of my favorite view of Milwaukee sent in 1907.

Score! The 1907 view from the Reservoir which North Avenue curves around in Milwaukee. A postcard photo of my city's favorite view found after one Elisabeth Hoelz sent it to Ludington over a century ago!
If you get lost just follow the plume of smoke.

When driving into port you’re greeted by a plume of dark smoke wafting from the Badger and a gentle scent of burning coal. For those bad with directions just follow the smoke. There is a curious rollercoaster-like ramp which meets the Badger’s top deck. Originally passenger cars were not a big draw for the ferry and the few cars to board were driven up and placed on deck. Just like the Badger this ramp is 7 stories high. I really wanted to drive on (and off!) the ramp Dukes of Hazard style but Lynda said it was for employees only. Dang. Maybe they’re hiring…

Car loading roller coaster. SS Spartan at the left.

Once aboard the Badger offers an extensive list of amenities. I don’t think a person could even take advantage of them all during the 4 hour trip. The $8 buffet breakfast was a terrific surprise. There is a movie theatre, two television viewing areas, an SS Badger museum room, an arcade, and individual staterooms. If you don’t want to play B.I.N.G.O. wi-fi is available. Or you can go old school and enjoy the view while making new friends.

Businesses and residents alike realize what the ferry traffic means to their economy and are happy to find a way for this titanic of a boat to keep making the rounds. On the other side Manitowoc features the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and the Hamilton Wood Type Museum a little farther north in Two Rivers.  Both ferries offer a pleasant alternative to Chicago traffic. Many people catch the ferry to the opposite side and take a scenic Upper Peninsula drive home.

Seats atop the Badger

Lynda explained that the Badger staff is currently working on a plan to convert the SS Badger to a natural gas fuel source. I asked if that was common and she indicated that the Badger would in fact be the first boat to make this type of conversion. The Badger appears to be in a curious position of being the last of it’s kind and hoping to be the first of it’s kind. If you’re interested in a coal-fired ride: you are still in luck. Until close of the 2012 season the Badger will keep smoking as it has for decades.

Goodbye Michigan! That's the SS Spartan at eye level while aboard the Badger.

One hour poem assignment: Success!

While editing segments at Milwaukee Public Radio, the producer Mitch Teich asked if I’d like come up with a poem regarding “Gastrointestinal Distress.” I said I had a great Pabst story, but assumed that wasn’t what he had in mind. Show topics included genetics, antibiotic vs probiotic, Chron’s Disease and modern health. I guessed, “So you need it…next week?” “It would air on tomorrow’s show” he answered. It was 2pm and show mixing begins at 3. Hm. An hour to research, write, and record a new poem. Hell yes I’m going to jump on random poem challenges. Here’s the finished result. Has a bit of a ‘Fireside Chats with Ed Makowski’ feel. Click and listen on the direct link below.