Sailing the High Seas (Midwest-Style)

The following is the next installment of what is now the woefully, embarrassingly out-of-date travelogue of the 2013 Rempe vacation.  In today’s episode, we ferry ‘cross the Mersey Lake Michigan to visit the land of a thousand cheeses, and seventy-or-so cousins of Scandinavian descent.

Lake ExpressWhen it comes to traveling across this great country of ours, there is no shortage of modes of transportation available to the sojourner.  Each has it’s own particular charm and/or appeal.  There is, of course, the car – the very symbol of American independence – riding the highways and byways of the land and experiencing roadside America up close and personal.  There is the airplane – the fruit of Orville’s and Wilbur’s collective labors – which shortens travel time and offers the unique view of the land from 30,000 feet above.  There’s the romantic notion of “riding the rails” and reminiscing about a bygone era when the “iron horse” connected coast to coast.  (As Kipling famously wrote, “East is East, and West is West, and the twain runs on the twacks.”)  There are those who prefer to traverse on two wheels, with the wind in their faces and bugs in their teeth.  And, in some places,  there is the option to ride the waves, sailing across the country’s lakes and waterways.

Now, when traveling with small children, these options are reduced.  Motorcycling is right out – there’s no good way to put five people, no matter how small, on one bike, and even if there were, a bit of the biker mystique would certainly be lost in the process.  Flying is possible, but the thought of having to check three different car seats and at least one stroller in order to subject total strangers to my amped-up children in close quarters (not to mention the cost of doing so) usually causes me to break out in a rash.  The train is a great option – provided you’re going where the train is.  (They tend not to take detours to your aunt’s house.)  So, when all is said and done, we usually end up loading up the family car and pray that we can make the whole circuit without busting a fan belt.

However, when the opportunity to actually combine modes of transportation avails itself, it’s hard not to jump at the opportunity.  So when I learned that there was a ferry that ran from western Michigan to Milwaukee, I couldn’t say no.  (Also, there is the added benefit of not having to drive through Gary, Indiana, and not having to experience rush hour on the Dan Ryan Expressway.)  So with Wisconsin in our sights, we headed out to Muskegon to catch the Lake Express.

Enjoying the top deck of the ferry.

We were greeted warmly as we pulled up to the queue.  “Welcome to the Lake Express!  The waves are a little high today, but if you stay toward the center of the boat, you should be fine.  There’s Dramamine available inside if you need it.  Enjoy the trip!”  After the requisite vehicle check, we put the car in park, and the kids and I went forward to watch the ship pull into the dock.

We noticed as we watched the first few cars disembark that a few of the passengers looked a little, well, green.  A large man wearing the complete Harley-Davidson uniform pulled up on his bike in front of those preparing to board.  “Be sure to take the Dramamine,” he announced forebodingly to no one in particular.

Beth and the kids gathered everything they would need for the three-hour trip, and headed over to the passenger entrance.  After driving the family truckster aboard, I rendezvoused with the family on the main deck.  The kids were full of anticipation, eagerly awaiting the moment when the boat would set sail.

Remembering the warnings from both the ferry employee and the burly biker dude, I figured that if I wanted to check out the outside observation deck with the kids, we should do it before we left the relative calm of the harbor.  As I was showing them where the person steering the ferry was located, the boat horn sounded, no more than 20 feet from us, nearly sending both kids into orbit.  Those assembled on deck got a good chuckle at my kids’ expense.  (Okay, I laughed, too.)

While the temperature was pleasant, and the skies a lovely shade of blue, it was impossible not to notice the wind picking up considerably as we headed for Lake Michigan.  Hmmm … maybe I should have taken that offer for Dramamine when I had the chance. …

We returned below and claimed a table in the middle of the cabin (as per the earlier suggestion).  Behind us sat several more motorcycle enthusiasts, festooned head-to-toe in Harley-Davidson regalia.  Although loud, they were actually quite friendly, joking with the kids as they prepared for the trip, adult beverages in hand.  (The bikers, that is.)

I settled in with my computer, hoping to get a little blog writing during the trip.  (A look at the byline date will tell you all you need to know about how successful that was.)  Beth noticed that Samuel was in need of a change, so she grabbed him and the diaper bag and headed for the restroom at the front of the ship.

It was shortly after this point that we realized that our biker friend from the previous excursion was not kidding about the Dramamine.  As the boat reached full speed, it began shifting dramatically from side-to-side, throwing anyone who was not firmly seated grasping for something stationary.  The ferry crew remained unfazed by the the undulations, delivering drinks to passengers with out so much a wobble.

When Beth emerged from the bathroom, she had the look of someone who had survived a near-death experience.  Our biker friends at the next table started laughing, imagining what it must have been like to change an infant in a small bathroom that was constantly shifting from one side to the other.  She gave me a look that said, “If anyone else needs to be changed during this trip, you are doing it.”  I pretended to type on my computer, trying to maintain a measure of plausible deniability should such a need arise.

A few minutes later, one of the ship’s officers approached our friends at the next table.  “Are you the guys with the motorcycles downstairs?” he asked.  The bikers stared at him in an attempt to convey the obvious.  “Well,” he finally continued, “They’re making a lot of noise down there.”

“Oh?” said one of the bikers, in a tone ineffectually intended to disguise his concern.  “What kind of noise?”

“Your alarms are all going off,” he responded, much to the relief of all.  “I need for you guys to go down and turn those off for me.”

Now it was our turn to laugh.  You truly haven’t lived until you’ve seen a gaggle* of bikers holding hands and trying to stay upright as they walk across a tipsy ferry boat.  I think they understood how absurd they must have looked, because several of them were laughing to themselves as they stumbled into the stairwell and descended to the lower deck.

At this point I looked over at Grace, who just a little bit ago had been a ball of irrepressible enthusiasm.  Now she looked pale and sickly, content just to lay her head on her mother’s lap and close her eyes.  Caleb was showing no ill effects, though, and Samuel was crawling up and down the aisle as if it was his own personal little racetrack.

About two hours into the trip, the wind subsided and the boat settled into an even keel, so to speak.  The color began to return to Grace’s cheeks, and the kids and I were able to venture over to one of the windows to watch the waves rush by.  A couple of elderly women were seated across from us, and were clearly enjoying watching the wonderment of two toddlers gazing out the porthole.

ferry_2“What are their ages?” asked one of the ladies.  When informed that they were 3, 2, and 11 months, they both smiled.  “God bless you, young man!” said the other.  I took comfort that there are still people in this world that can rightfully refer to me as a “young man,” but I also have to admit a bit of unease in seeing the twinkle in the ladies’ eyes that said, “… but you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

As the boat prepared to pull into the harbor, Grace, Caleb, and I scrambled back to the top deck to take in the view of the Milwaukee skyline and take a few pictures.  Then, it was back down below to gather our stuff and to retrieve the car.  Next stop, Lake Geneva, and the triennial gathering of the Cousins Club Unlimited.

Next: “Home” with the Family.

* Surprisingly, a “gaggle” is the correct term for a gathering of motorcyclists.  Okay, not really … but it should be.


Author: Steve Rempe

Christian. Husband. Dad. Bengal fan. (Pretty much in that order.)

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