Laid back on the Lake Express

A pricey but worth it alternative to Chicago drive

On our last several visits to Chicago, we’ve hit the brakes on I-90 around O’Hare Airport, then crawled like a sick cockroach all the way downtown.

The time of day doesn’t seem to matter. A portion of the drive that should take 20 or 25 minutes takes three or four times that.

Later this month we’re going to see Tom Russell—to my mind America’s greatest singer-songwriter—at a gritty suburban Chicago roadhouse called FitzGerald’s. As much as I am looking forward to Russell, I’m dreading the drive.

I realize it’s a first-world problem, and I shouldn’t let it get to me. I try. When I see the brake lights up ahead, I smile and immediately begin whistling Broadway show tunes.

A half hour in, I’m white-knuckled on the steering wheel, pleading and whimpering.  “I don’t see an accident. Why is this happening? Why us?”

The only thing worse is limping into Chicago and realizing you still have three hours to go to your destination in southern Michigan.

Most summers for the past three decades, I’ve visited my sister in Grand Haven, and spent a few days living like a beach bum on the beautiful windswept dunes and sandy shores nature gifted to southern Michigan.
In all modesty, whatever that certain indescribable something is that makes a great beach bum, I have it.

The alert reader may be thinking: What about driving there and back through Chicago?

I’m happy to report that this summer marked the 10th anniversary of my discovery of the Lake Express, a ferry that runs between Milwaukee and Muskegon and takes Chicago completely out of the journey. The Lake Express was launched in 2004, although inexplicably, it took me a few years to hear about it.

The high-speed Lake Express—not to be confused with the SS Badger, which runs between Manitowoc and Ludington—is 192-feet long and has a capacity for 250 passengers and 46 cars. It gets from Milwaukee to Muskegon in two and a half hours.

The first summer I heard about the Lake Express, I tried to book passage but the ferry was sold out for the dates I needed. The following year, I booked early. That same summer of 2008, I had a chance to talk to the Lake Express president, Ken Szallai, about the ferry.

Szallai—he remains president—came to Wisconsin from Houston in 1986 and spent nearly two decades at the Milwaukee Port Authority before joining some Milwaukee-area businessmen in the new venture.

“We’re all about customer service and no hassles,” Szallai told me, and for the most part, in my experience, they’ve delivered.

It’s not cheap. Round-trip passage for two adults and a car late last month was just under $500, with various surcharges bumping it closer to $550.

I think it’s worth it, and have always treated the trip as an adventure. After driving onto the lower deck, you’re free to leave your car and either sit in a passenger cabin or outside, weather permitting.

I love sitting up top with the wind and sun on my face, reading an appropriate paperback. This year I had a couple of Randy Wayne White thrillers featuring Marion “Doc” Ford, a marine biologist who lives in a stilt house on a bay in Sanibel, Florida.

Ford—who is also a semi-retired government assassin—is heir to John D. MacDonald’s great boat bum character, Travis McGee. That he’s in Sanibel is a plus for me. My parents rented a condo there. I visited often and recognize landmarks in the books.

The ferry is more fun in good weather. On our return trip this year, there were four to six-foot waves on the lake and they were handing out free motion sickness medicine. People who tried to move around the passenger cabin would suddenly lurch sideways, like the crew on “Star Trek” when the Enterprise took a hit from a Klingon photon torpedo.

As a grizzled ferry veteran, I was fine. I stayed in my seat with my paperbacks.

I might also note that for the first time in decades, my visit this year was not to Grand Haven. My sister sold her home there and moved to Saugatuck.

It’s a little further from the ferry dock in Muskegon, but Saugatuck is lovely, with quirky shops and restaurants, and Oval Beach, one of the world’s best, according to Conde Nast Traveler.

We were sitting at an outdoor café called Lucy’s one noon when a man approached our table and said, “Madison, right?”

We nodded. Small world. He introduced himself and said he lives along the Southwest Bike Path. He claimed to recognize me, but I figure he recognized Mrs. Moe.

A nice guy, in any case. He said he has a house in Saugatuck, too, and comes over most summer weekends. I should have asked if he takes the ferry.  

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.   


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