Thursday, August 8, 2013

My Steamy Encounter

I had a lovely motorcycle trip with a couple friends a couple weeks ago up around the Northern end of Lake Michigan (with an overnight stay in a remote cabin in the wilderness of MI's Upper Peninsula). Apart from an unrelenting cold rain--that none of us properly dressed for since it was, you know, late July, the warmest part of the year!--it was a fabulous adventure (actually, maybe even made more "adventurous" by the rain and cold). We saw some really stunning terrain, plus some unexpectedly beautiful properties along Lake Michigan's Northeastern shore, around Petoskey and Harbor Springs.

But the highlight for me was the return trip on the S.S. Badger. Day 1 involved riding up the Western shore of Lake Michigan to the cabin up near Sault Saint Marie. On Day 2 we rode down the Northeastern shore of the lake past Traverse City to Ludington, where we caught the 8:30 PM Badger run back across the lake to Manitowoc and the hour ride home.

The Badger is one of the last--if not THE last--coal-fired, steam-powered carferries operating on the Great Lakes and a rare present-day opportunity for us to interface with the steam power that used to make the world go round. She was built in 1952, the last of a fleet of four ferries designed to carry rail cars across the lake. As rail traffic decreased over time, the ferries were converted to car service and became fewer and fewer in number until only the Badger remained. (In a cute detail, there's a "Hwy 10" sticker on her stern to commemorate the connection between WI Hwy 10 on one side and MI Hwy 10 on the other.) The other three of the Badger's original fleet mates have now been scrapped or mothballed (one of the latter, the Spartan, is docked in Manitowoc next to the Badger's terminal, gradually giving up its parts to keep the Badger running). The other extant carferry is the Lake Express, a smaller, high speed ferry service initiated in 2004 that crosses Lake Michigan between Muskegon (where I was once based with Great Lakes) and Milwaukee. The Lake Express is only about 1/4 the size of the Badger, and it makes its crossing in 2.5 hours vs 4 hours for the Badger. But despite the smaller scale of the operation (the Lake Express has a capacity of 248 passengers / 46 cars versus the Badger's 680 passengers / 180 cars) it sounds like the Lake Express has had its challenges staying afloat as well.

The Badger has been in the local news for environmental issues in the last few years. As was apparently common practice for coal-fired vessels, the Badger produces some five tons of coal ash per day, which is dumped into Lake Michigan during the crossings. This practice has apparently caught up to the ferry line, and they were basically issued a cease and desist letter a few years back. Some solution to this problem needs to be found, either an exemption from the law (the current temporary solution) or some technical fix, if the Badger is to remain in business. Apparently, the two solutions being bandied about at the moment involve either converting the existing machinery to natural gas fuel (thus keeping things steam-powered) or to hold the ash onboard and deal with it on land at the terminals. It sounds like another carferry line was being talked about a number of years ago which would have involved reviving the Spartan and converting her to now-conventional diesel power, but that option fell by the wayside. I mention this because this could surely also be a solution for the Badger, but it must be a pricey option for such an old vessel. And it would strip away one of the things--though not everything--that makes the Badger extraordinary.

(I did a bit of online research about the ship and its history. Turns out there's a small but enthusiastic group of steamship enthusiasts that have this operation squarely in their sights. There are even a couple YouTube videos of the mechanical workings of the Badger (or here, or here--sorry for the cheesy soundtrack, but the engine room footage is fascinating), which gets me close to the engine room tour I sought but could not achieve. I have to wonder at these last few folks plying the skills that used to be the bread and butter of many a career. The business of lighting and managing a coal fire, of dealing with the hot ash, of keeping the water levels correct in a boiler, of managing the steam output for a varying workload--these things were known and practiced for decades by thousands of folks for shipping and railroads and electrical power generation and many things. But who keeps these trades alive now? Where is the repository of accumulated knowledge? Who keeps and passes on the little arcane secrets and shortcuts and efficiencies that have been worked out over decades?)

Our trip occurred mostly in darkness, and was quite reminiscent of the cruising that Susan and I have done. It's a big boat--some 410 feet long--and equipped with many amenities. There are cabins for those who wish to sleep (for an extra fee), a movie theater room, a small museum, a gift shop, a couple quiet rooms, two TV lounges, and a couple cafeterias (the larger of which was closed for these more sparsely-attended evening crossings). Everything was clean and warm and the staff of mostly young kids gave their all to keep us entertained (including a couple hours of bingo, which my buddy and I both won at). In all, very worth the trip.

I don't have much occasion to cross the lake in this way, but I'd go out of my way to ride the Badger again. It was a lot of fun, and at $110 total for person and bike I'd say it was a good value as well. The ash problem is taken care of until the end of the 2014 season, after which the Cruise Director informed me that they are optimistic that a solution will have been found. Here's to that: for novelty alone this is something that I hope continues.
In Ludington. Waiting to board.

Taking on supplies. A huge wooden ramp used to allow trucks to drive right up to this upper deck portal for this purpose. Half the ramp still exists off screen right.

The mothballed sistership "Spartan." Her bits and pieces have kept the Badger running for years.

Bike parking.

From the bike spot looking forward. This is the starboard side; another bay just like this is on the port side. Note the rails still in the decking (which is asphalt--just like a road surface).

The Spartan.

One of two TV lounges. Both face aft, this one is on port side.

The snack bar. The larger cafeteria was closed for the sparsely-attended night run.

Main passenger lounge. We're just underway, leaving Ludington.


Jon said...

Looks like fun. Curious to know how many people ride this on any given day? It must be enough for them to make some kind of money at it or it wouldnt be around. All in all its got to be expensive to keep a ship like that running. There arent too many places left I would think that still use raw coal other than power plants and the like. All in all, very interesting. To bad about the rain, with all the bike trips you have taken, your still probably ahead in the rain dept.

Unknown said...

The trip coming TO Ludington had many more passengers than rode back across on our run. Probably not a full boat, but I'd guess 350 folks and 100 cars. It's interesting to me that many more people used to use these ferry services; what changed? Just air travel?

I suspect this is one of these times where things exist on the coat tails of a previous effort. No one could afford to build and operate a new Badger today--not at this scale, certainly not the labor-intensity of coal-power. So if this delicate balance tips, the Badger will go away. I wonder if anything would replace it?

We may soon know the answers to these questions.

William Stachour said...

Odd that it didn't know who I am!

Vancouver Voyeur said...

On the inside, it looks a lot like the ferries we rode in WA. I love riding in boats and ships. When you mentioned the ash problem, I immediately thought, " wait, isn't ash used in concrete, paint, etc.?" I looked, it is. There should be a market for some of it if they can contain it and bring it back to shore with them. I hope tey can kerp it running.

William Stachour said...

Your research is better than mine! I think using the ash for other purposes is the *perfect* solution to the problem! Here's hoping they follow this lead.