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The Best Way to Cross Lake Michigan? On the SS Badger Car Ferry!
Crossing one of the Great Lakes by boat was one of my travel dreams. And today on the SS Badger, it was about to come true. As I pulled up to the first checkpoint before the loading zone, the handsome yet stern-looking man, flanked by his eager German Shepherd, greeted me with “Last name?” I gave it to him, and he asked, “Any weapons or animals in the car?”
“No, sir,” I replied.
“Please put the car in park, turn off the ignition, and leave your window open.” He then made his way around the car with his dog, Dara, sniffing the entire way. About 10 seconds later, he arrived back at my window with a smile and a, “go ahead and pull forward. Enjoy your ride on the Badger!” No matter how often I get the joy of being sniffed for explosives in my travels, I’ll never get over the tiny twinge of nervous energy that accompanies the experience.
At the next stop, a few feet further, two delightful women pleasantly took my name and directed me to “Lane 4, behind the SUV, please.” As I pulled up to my space, I knew this would be the last I’d see of my little white Trailblazer til we reached the other side of Lake Michigan. I gathered the items I thought I’d need for the passage and headed for the ticket office, where the line began for passenger boarding.
A few minutes later, the announcement came, and for the very first time, I made my way aboard the SS Badger. She was built in 1952 and has been chugging her way through the 60-mile cruise across Lake Michigan, powered by coal-fired boilers, from Ludington, Michigan, to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and back again multiple times per week every summer sailing season since then. The passage takes about 4 hours each way, no matter what time of year.
Riding the SS Badger isn’t just about getting across the lake, though. For many people, the ride is all about social time. For others, it’s about pursuing the perfect nap. For some, it’s all about the free Bingo! Badger Bingo is its own special and unique experience and a solid way to pass the time. Where else do you get the rare opportunity to win a squishable Badger for stress release (other than the gift shop, of course)? But the paid-for squishable badger doesn’t come with the knowledge that you are a “winner,” after all.
As I climbed the steps to the spacious outside decks, I observed the people around me. On this crisp October day, I noticed most of my fellow passengers were of retirement age. In the summer months, when the kids are out of school, the passenger list consists of many more families with children, but on this day, I would be among my own people, the over-50 crowd.
A tour around the ship revealed the many places I could choose to settle in for the ride. The onboard theater shows free movies and seats about 50 people, and the chairs are quite comfortable. The free movie lounge is one of the favorite places for nappers to travel. Just a few steps down the passageway is the gift shop.
Need a pen or a sweatshirt? Or a little something to bring home to the grandkids? The Badger Boatique has all your gift-giving essentials, most emblazoned with the SS Badger name and logo. They even have a book titled, “Murder on the SS Badger,” so you can pass the time with a great mystery!
THE SECRET OF SEASICKNESS MEDS
They also carry a small assortment of pharmaceutical items, such as Tylenol and the all-important Dramamine for motion sickness. I learned mid-trip that a traveler must take her Dramamine before traveling, not during, as it has great power to ease your symptoms if taken correctly but to make you more miserable if not.
I don’t typically suffer from motion sickness, but it got a hold of me on this calm day. I ran for the Dramamine, but learned that it wasn’t my best option since I hadn’t taken it before boarding. No worries, the Cruise Director had a piece of Ginger Gum and a pair of Sea Bands to help ease the quease.
BIG SHIP MORE FUN!
I made my way to the ship’s central area, which holds the Cruise Director’s office (no spottings of Julie McCoy this time), and the Portside Bar with full cocktail service. The bartender mixed me up a mean Bloody Mary. I couldn’t resist a bag of the best popcorn on Lake Michigan to go with my drink. It makes sense that the bar and the Cruise Director are here because this is where Bingo happens, too! The tables were crowded with people anxiously anticipating the arrival of the famous Badger Bingo Caller, Todd Hansen.
As of 2022, Todd is enjoying his 18th year of this fun job, and the people love him and his unique brand of dad jokes. He is full of interesting information as well. While we traveled, he punctuated his Bingo calling with such facts as “the deepest part of Lake Michigan is 924 feet, located near Frankfort,” and “the deepest area we go over while traveling is 540 feet.”
He also gave away the finest rubber bracelets and Badger ball caps to the bingo winners. Warning: If you win a ball cap, you are expected to model it. If you don’t, the chant begins, “Put it on! Put it on!” until you comply.
Todd was having a blast and getting the crowd involved by occasionally calling out the Badger’s catchphrase, “Big Ship More Fun.” He would say it, and the crowd eagerly shouted it back at him. And if we didn’t do it to his liking, he expected us to do it again until we got it right.
THE MANY ROOMS OF THE BADGER
Beyond the Bingo room, I found two nearby areas with soft theater-style chairs lined up for those who were reading, snoozing, or quietly chatting across the lake. But the most highly-sought out place to relax on the Badger is the onboard museum. This delightful space proudly displays bits of Badger and Maritime history and has ten chairs and three couch areas for the very best napping experience on board. You can even enjoy satellite tv. On my return trip home, I gave one of the “most comfortable chairs on board” a test run, and indeed, I found it an excellent place for a mid-trip snooze.
As I wandered aimlessly, I came across a cool space called the “Cabana Room.” As with all of the details of the Badger, this room is steeped in history. Initially, the Badger was built as a ship to transport rail cars, but it soon became apparent that she would need additional space to hold passenger vehicles. The Cabana Room, now used as a space for private parties or receptions, contains a bar area and space for live entertainment.
The Badger has now enclosed the space with walls and windows that look out the aft (front) of the ship. At one time, this was the very place where those cars were loaded. A small wall plaque explains the history of the space and shows a photo of how the cars loaded with a long ramp. It seems every square inch of the Badger has a story to tell!
Family Fun – SS Badger Style!
I wondered how a family might pass the time on the SS Badger carferry and found examples of how family-friendly she is. Board games are available to use while traveling, and the entire family is encouraged to explore the ship through a Scavenger Hunt with clues placed inside and out in kid-friendly locations all around the passageways and the various rooms.
A kids’ playroom and a game room with a mini video arcade for families are just down the passage from the theater. Travelers that need some privacy can rent one of the private staterooms onboard. These rooms are the perfect place to get away from the crowds. Each stateroom has a seating area, a private bathroom, and a window. If you have a little one (or a husband) that needs a quiet space to nap, get a room!
I couldn’t help but explore and ask questions about what safety measures are in place aboard the Badger. There were plenty of lifeboats, enough for everyone, life preservers, and when asked, I was assured that all safety measures were tested at regular intervals throughout the year. Each staff member is trained in emergency measures and can perform as needed during a crisis.
After all this indoor exploring, I walked out to the ship’s deck. Even though I didn’t do it in an organized fashion, I eventually made the six trips, or one mile, around that ship. My pedometer got a good workout on this trip, even between Bingo games and munchies!
As I breathed the fresh air, I saw benches and chairs everywhere! My mind conjured images of lounging on one of the outside deck areas on a warm summer day, enjoying the site of the changing color of the water as I traveled. Lake Michigan is so clear and gorgeous – every time I looked at the water, it appeared a different shade of blue, green, and aqua. And is there anything better than the breeze of fresh summer air flowing through your hair? I think not. Even on this chilly day, the wind, sun, and water made my heart happy!
Hunger Calls and the Badger Answers
After exploring for a good hour, I felt my tummy talking. It was time to eat! I went in search of food, and boy, did I find it! My first stop was at the buffet-style dining area serving breakfast on morning trips from Ludington to Manitowoc. The smell was delightful, but they were closing shop to convert to lunch foods such as hot dogs and slices of pizza.
I wandered back toward the Bingo room, following my nose to other delicious smells. The Badger Galley is a deli-style snack bar with a selection of snacky-style foods. Munch on a corn dog, a soft pretzel, or polish sausage, and wash it down with a soda or a cup of coffee. And don’t forget that great popcorn right around the corner at the Portside Bar!
Fun Facts about the SS Badger
- The SS Badger is 410 feet long and seven stories tall!
- She was registered as a National Historic Landmark in 2016.
- She was built in 1952, and the Badger celebrates her 70th birthday this year!
- The Badger is also available for shoreline tours out of both Ludington and Manitowoc ports at various times throughout the summer. Click HERE for the shoreline tour schedule.
- Six laps walking around the upper deck equals one mile!
- The Michigan dock is located just minutes from Ludington’s vibrant downtown area.
- The Badger can accommodate up to 600 passengers and 180 vehicles.
- The S.S. Badger Carferry has transported all kinds of exciting cargo, including the Budweiser Clydesdales team, oversized loads like tour buses, and even a tiny house that made its way across the Lake on my trip.
- The SS Badger was originally built to transport railroad freight cars across the lake.
- The Badger travels an average speed of 18 miles per hour (15.6 knots).
- U.S. Coast Guard regulations require all maritime vessels be inspected every five years to ensure they are in prime operating order.
- Four men/dog Teams work with the Badger to ensure passenger and crew safety.
- The Badger is the last coal-fired passenger steamship in the United States and the world’s largest car ferry! But they will be shifting away from coal to a new power source sooner rather than later, so there’s no time like the present to experience her under her original power source.
- In 2021, the SS Badger was freshened up with a fresh coat of paint. After thoroughly sandblasting her, workers went through 800 gallons of paint to fully cover the entire ship.
The Hip Grandma Settles In for the Ride
After thoroughly exploring The Badger, I settled in for my trip in the Bingo area. Regrettably, I didn’t win any fantastic prizes, but I made a new friend when I asked to share the table with a woman seated near the window and traveling alone. We happily chatted and shared a bag of popcorn as we made our way across the lake.
We had fun watching the TV screen as it occasionally showed us the progress we were making in our trek across the lake. The screens around the ship show live screens from marinetraffic.com. A quick search for the free app on my phone showed that I could follow along in real-time and see where we were at any given moment on Lake Michigan while crossing. We could also see all the specs of our ship and others traveling on the lake that day.
We’ve Arrived in Manitowoc!
Before I could say Big Ship More Fun, the Cruise Director announced that we would soon be arriving in Manitowoc. I made my way to the ship’s rear end with several others. We all gathered around the back to watch the ship dock. The crew is unbelievable, and they work like finely tuned instruments. Ropes are tossed, pulleys are pulled, the ship’s back end rises up to allow cars and large cargo to exit, and passengers line up to leave the ship.
As we pulled into the dock, many local residents waited for the Badger’s appearance in port and waved a friendly greeting as we docked. I was living out that dream of traveling across Lake Michigan, just like in a movie scene, waving to strangers on land. Pardon my romantic musings, but everyone needs to have those every so often.
While my dream Lake Michigan cruise experience ended, I looked down as the car runners hustled to and fro from the ship to the parking area, driving a vehicle and then running back to get the next one. Cars, RVs, and even commercial trucks lined up perfectly, and waiting passengers made their way to their vehicles to pull out on their next adventure.
The entire exit process took only minutes. And that made perfect sense because this national treasure would soon be re-loading with another group of travelers, this time heading back across Lake Michigan to its original destination, maybe making someone else’s dream come true.
You can find a schedule of crossings for the Badger HERE.
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