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« Blue Highways: Elberta, Michigan | Main | Blue Highways: Kewaunee, Wisconsin »

Blue Highways: Somewhere on Lake Michigan

Unfolding the Map

On the high seas...or at least the high lakes!  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) takes the ferry from Kewaunee to Elberta, and we're on deck with him, watching Wisconsin grow more distant in the early afternoon.  I'm putting us right square equidistant between Michigan and Wisconsin, so get your soundings at the map.

Book Quote

"On the aft deck I took a seat and watched Wisconsin get smaller.  I had long wondered whether all shorelines disappear on a clear day in the middle of Lake Michigan (the name means 'big water').  I would soon find out."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 13

The Ann Arbor No. 7, later renamed Viking, transported William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) across Lake Michigan from Kewaunee, Wisconsin to Elberta, Michigan shortly before it stopped running for good. Photo at the the Gallery at Click on photo to go to host site.

Somewhere on Lake Michigan

In the short list of things that terrify and fascinate me (spiders, certain types of heights), I'm going to add a couple more.  I know why I have one of these small phobias, but not the other.

Deep water terrifies and fascinates me, but only in a certain sense.  Have you ever been out on a lake or in an ocean, and you jump overboard for a swim, and you realize that your feet are simply dangling and you have no way of knowing where the bottom is?  It isn't the water that terrifies me, but the sudden realization that there's an unknown depth below and anything could be in that unknown depth.  For some reason, that just sends a chill up my spine.  I don't think that's a fear that is unexplainable.  Water is really not a human element, though our makeup is over three-quarters of the stuff.  To me, swimming in an unknown depth is like free-falling in slow motion, or being suspended over clouds off an unknown height where you cannot gauge how high you are.

The other thing that terrifies me, for reasons I cannot fathom (oh, that pun was so intended!), is the sides of ships.  But it's not just the side - if I look at a ship straight on or from a distance, I am fine.  No, the part that terrifies me is imagining that I might be in the water next to the side of a ship.  I think about being in the shadow of that huge thing, with my legs suspended and dangling over an unknown depth, before I'm sucked under the ship and into the propellors.

Mind you, I don't think about these things often.  They are not an obsessive phobia.  And they are not debilitating.  I will still jump off a boat in the middle of a lake to swim despite my uneasiness.  But when I do think about them, I get a shiver and that hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I bring this up because Lake Michigan is a huge, deep lake.  LHM wonders just how big it is and before he gets sidetracked by a story told by a fellow passenger on the ferry intends to put it to a test and see if the land disappears completely, leaving him surrounded by water.  There is something magical and forlorn in watching land disappear from the deck of a ship.  The only time I've experienced it is on the ferry from Le Havre, France to Rosslare, Ireland.  I was so excited and fearful of getting seasick (another slight phobia) that the uniqueness of my situation was lost on me at the time.  My imagination has filled in the gaps, though.  The land, the anchor to the world, dissolves into the horizon or perhaps mist off the water.  At that point, which I have experienced, the movement of the ship is betrayed only by the sound of the engines, the movement of air over the ship and the ship's wake.  Otherwise, like a lonely swimmer, you seem suspended between water and sky and often at the mercy of the water, until the farther shore materializes in front of you.

I believe I wrote this story before, about not realizing the size of Lake Michigan from a map.  On my first trip to the Midwest I had to take a puddle jumper from Chicago to Benton Harbor, Michigan.  I expected a short flight.  After all, it was only over a lake.  We took off from O'Hare Airport, flew out over downtown Chicago, and then out over the lake.  30 minutes later, we were still over the lake.  It was only my second flight and I began to wonder if we were lost when the land appeared below us and we touched down.  Later, when I lived in Milwaukee, I loved heading to the lakefront, because the vastness of the water reminded me of being on the ocean where I grew up.

The other theme in this passage is the ferry.  LHM might have been one of the last few people to take this ferry because it ceased running in 1982 after 90 years of service.  The ship, the Viking, was known originally as the Ann Arbor No. 7 and was renamed after it was rebuilt.  The Ann Arbor Railroad train ferries originally ran between Kewaunee, Wisconsin and Elberta, Michigan and expanded to other cities on upper Lake Michigan.

In the chapter, LHM remarks how small Ghost Dancing looks next to the boxcars on board, and when he hears some clanking down below hopes that the boxcar hasn't shifted in some way and crushed his van.  The boxcars were actually loaded onto the ferries, taken across the lake, and then disembarked onto tracks there to continue their railway journeys.  Without the ferries, the route would take much longer and therefore be much more expensive.  I did a quick Google Maps route and found that by car, getting from Kewaunee to Elberta would take about eight and a half hours.  By boat, that would be at least cut in half, and by the time LHM took the ferry, it might have been only 3 hours.

Though the Kewaunee ferry has ended, I am happy to say that there is still ferry service on Lake Michigan from Wisconsin.  The Lake Express has been billed as American's first high speed ferry line, and it runs from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Michigan.  It appears to be one of those sleek, double hulled catamarans and the website says it does about 40 miles per hour (34 knots) during the 2 and one-half hour trip.  The ship has been sailing since 2004.  The Lake Michigan Carferry runs between Manitowoc, Wisconsin to Ludington, Michigan.  The ship, the S.S. Badger, appears to be more of a conventional style ferry that plied the Great Lakes.  The website touts her as the biggest ferry to ever sail the Great Lakes and did so from 1953 until 1990, when she was tied up in Michigan.  An entrepreneur bought her in 1991 and had her refurbished, and began running her again shortly afterward.  The cruise takes four hours.

A Great Lakes or ocean ferry is a great way to get a nautical experience without having to endure days at sea, and if you pick the route right, you can get a little of everything.  Sometimes there are big waves and big excitement, sometimes calm seas and relaxation.  Perhaps, if you're lucky, you'll catch that magical point just as the land disappears from view and you too are suspended between water and sky on your personal chariot between space and time.

Musical Interlude

You won't believe that there aren't many songs about ferries.  You would think that given their importance to our nation's history and growth, there'd be more written about these forms of transportation.  However, I was only able to find one fun song by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters celebrating the the Black Ball Ferries. If you have any other suggestions, Littourati, let me know.

Black Ball Ferry Line


If you want to know more about Lake Michigan and the history of the railroad ferries
Classic Trains Magazine: Lake Michigan Carferries
Great Lakes Information Network: Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan Circle Tour
Railroad History of Central Wisconsin: A Lifelong Love of Lake Michigan Railroad Car Ferries
RRHX: Railroad Car Ferries
Wikipedia: Ann Arbor Railroad
Wikipedia: Lake Michigan
Wikipedia: Train Ferry
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Lake Michigan

Next up: Elberta, Michigan

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Reader Comments (2)

This songs not about a ferry, but it is about ships and the great lakes with their deep dangerous waters. It's one I loved as a teenager - "Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" and I think it fit your story.

April 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Arning

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April 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpettersmith105

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