The weekend brought some good news for Minnesotans of a certain bent who plan to be motoring eastward this summer:
The fun and funky S.S. Badger is operating legally, for a change, as a car-carrying ferry service between Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Ludington, Michigan.
The 63-year-old ship, originally built to carry rail cars across the lake, will continue to run on coal-fired boilers, the last remaining vessel on the Great Lakes to do so.
But its dumping of coal ash into the lake, in a continuous stream of wet slurry in a volume approaching four tons per day, is now past practice.
A $2.4 million renovation of her innards now enables the Badger to retain the ash on board until it can be offloaded ashore for use in cement-making and such.
Under separate provisions of a consent decree negotiated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Badger will be burning about 15 percent less coal than it used to, the result of improved combustion controls.
To judge by the many YouTube videos that have gone up since Friday’s first sailings of the season, however, the murky plume from her stack hasn’t changed much. There’s only so much you can do to clean up coal smoke.
Still, according to the EPA regional office in Chicago, an inspection has established that Lake Michigan Carferry Service Inc. “has taken all the steps necessary to permanently stop the discharge of coal ash into Lake Michigan” and paid a $25,000 civil penalty for violating federal standards on mercury discharges in 2012.
So perhaps ex-passengers who loved sailing on the Badger, but couldn’t brook her owners’ truculent approach to EPA enforcement of the Clean Water Act, can once again buy a ticket with a clear conscience. Being among them, I want to hope so.
Sleeping under the stars
Because here’s the thing: I really want to board the Badger again some summer night on the Wisconsin side, just before 1 a.m. and weary from driving east since dinnertime.
I’ll climb to the top deck and roll out my sleeping bag on a chaise unfolded flat. Sip a little whiskey in the open air as the lights of Wisconsin fall off the edge of the earth. Admire a starry sky undimmed by ground light.
Fall asleep in a light breeze, rocking almost imperceptibly as low rollers pass under the hull. Wake with the dawn, or maybe the ship’s whistle, in time to roll up the bag, visit the head and make my way onto Michigan soil.
Take delivery of the car from a cheerful college kid who has found one of the great summer jobs and drive it, rested and refreshed now, not more than a couple of miles to breakfast at a Big Boy whose exterior makes it seem about as old as the Badger.
Hmm: The potato pancakes, the country fried steak and eggs, or the Hammy Scrammy scramble?
Life is complex, full of difficult choices.
Three choices for the motorist
Three main choices confront the motoring Minnesotan whose vacation travel involves getting to the other side of Lake Michigan.
There is the Badger, which crosses the lake in about four hours and will typically cost $192 one way for two adults with a normal-size vehicle, or $370 round trip.
There is the Lake Express, a modern, high-speed catamaran that burns diesel and crosses between Milwaukee and Muskegon in just two and a half hours, but at fares about 50 percent higher: $294 one way for two adults and a standard vehicle, $519 round trip.
And then there is the option of driving around Chicago, a road trip through the hotter circles of motoring hell that I’ve already made more times than I care to remember in this life. Fewer dollars spent that way but a lot more hours on the road.
For an admittedly apples-to-oranges comparison, driving a route that took you from Manitowoc to Ludington via Gary would be a bit over 400 miles and not quite seven hours behind the wheel. That’s according to Google Maps and seems optimistic to me timewise, since the Chicagoland freeways are always under construction and clogged with truck traffic.
Milwaukee to Muskegon is not quite so awful, at a bit under 300 miles and five hours.
Either way, you’re welcome to it, and to lunch at a McDonald’s in one of those freeway-straddling toll-road pullouts.
The ferries compared
There are other dimensions for the ferry traveler to consider besides price and crossing time.
The Lake Express is spiffy and comfy and shockingly fast – I’ve clocked it at well over 30 knots with a hand-held GPS unit, and top speed is 34. World-class racing sailboats may struggle to maintain speed in that range (an apples to coconuts comparison, I grant you, but perhaps still interesting).
It’s a smooth ride if you’re seated, even though the ferry is rocking both side to side and fore and aft as it cuts through the water. A subtle movement, more of a swaying, as if the whole boat were perched on a balance ball.
But unless the lake is mirror-flat it’s likelly to unnerve you once you try to walk across a deck, perhaps carrying a tray of sandwiches and beer, and the higher you go in the vessel the more pronounced it becomes.
Being out in the open air is not always charming on a boat that makes 30-plus knots of apparent wind on its own, no matter what the weather is doing.
The Lake Express makes six daily crossings each day, three in each direction, to the Badger’s four and two. Its facilities on each end are more modern, and if it matters to you, you get to drive your own vehicle on and off the vessel rather than leaving it to the staff.
However, Sallie and I have done one thing on the Badger that looks to be impossible on the Lake Express: Board with a 19-foot sailboat in tow, for a total trailer length somewhere close to 25 feet.
Our rig fit quite neatly among the tractor-trailers that are still everyday occupants of the Badger’s vehicle deck. But the Lake Express isn’t built for semis.
It accommodates trailers up to 8 feet without hassle – but at an extra charge exceeding $100 each way. Above that you have to call for special arrangements, and above 18 feet you’re just out of luck.
Riding either ferry involves some waiting time ashore, and here the Badger has another edge.
You travel between the waterfront areas of two small cities, and Ludington’s is exceptionally pleasant, with restaurants and brew pubs and clean, bargain-rate motels within a short walk of the dock. Manitowoc’s – not so much, especially at midnight.
The Lake Express’s facility in downtown Milwaukee has a snack bar, which is good because once your car is in the queue there’s really nowhere to go on foot. The Muskegon end is a little better but it’s no Ludington.
Not forgetting, but forgiving
I’m not forgetting, though I rather wish I could, the Badger owners’ long history of game-playing and disingenuous public relations in resisting pollution standards that were long ago enforced on other coal-burning industrial operations along the Great Lakes shorelines.
For many years Lake Michigan Carferry asserted that it was simply impossible to retain coal ash aboard the vessel, and pretended to be exploring such fanciful options as converting to liquefied natural gas. It got congressmen to seek special privileges on the ground that its coal-burning entitled it to monument status.
Then, when EPA called its last bluff, it retrofitted the boat in a single off-season.
I think the operators of the Lake Express are completely justified in considering this history of noncompliance to be, in effect, a taking of unfair competitive advantage for the Badger. But I also think that when a longtime polluter cleans up its act at last, some forgiveness is in order.
So although Badger PR rep Terri Brown has never been much help to me in my writing about the old boat, I endorse wholeheartedly her observation to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Friday:
“I would like to say that what is lost in all the rhetoric is that we are an awesome experience.”
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I’ve never been able to actually visit the Badger’s boiler room in the course of reporting on the compliance battle, but the company has posted a before-and-after video about the conversion project.