Thanks for this guest blog post from member Tom Mortensen with photographs from one of his fellow travelers, Greg Boyle. This double ferry trip is on my bucket list. -Dave Schlabowske
The renowned Milwaukee Historian, John Gurda wrote an interesting piece in August of 2013 for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel entitled, “Lake Michigan Offers Great Routes for Bicycle Tour.” It was about the counterclockwise bike ride that he and his wife took over to Michigan via the two-ferry system known as the Lake Express Ferry and the SS Badger.
Damn. He beat me to it. And as I discovered, so have many others.
As we all know and appreciate, John is a great writer and historian. He can paint a picture of fun facts and history that can capture the imagination and inspire one to get out and explore. Thanks John.
Six or seven years ago, my good friend Greg planted the idea of riding the “Ferry Loop” to Michigan and back over an extended weekend. We talked about it many times and started to plan the logistics, but as often happens, life seems to get in the way. Summer weekends usually tend to evaporate by June when other plans and obligations lock up the calendar through Labor Day.
2015 was finally going to be the year. In January I sent an email to 26 of my cycling friends and colleagues to see who wanted to commit to making the journey. The email went something like this:
Ride your bike to Michigan and back in one (extended) weekend
When: July 31st – August 3rd.
How: On a bicycle
Why: Because it’s there, and we drink beer.
We stay in decent hotels, eat good food, drink beer and have a good breakfast…..every day. All you have to do is get your carcass in the saddle twice a week between now and July and you’ll be fine, really.
Of the 26 friends I invited, it eventually came down to 4 of us who had wanted to do the ride for several years. Greg was on board along with Andrew and Mike. Andrew and I had completed several multi-day bicycle trips together in years past and Greg had done several long distance rides as well. This trip would be Mike’s maiden voyage at this distance, but he is a good athlete and had been riding all summer to prepare for the time in the saddle. Once we heard his family bought him a set of panniers for Father’s Day, we knew he was committed.
The planning began at the Estabrook Park Beer Garden in Milwaukee over a few half liters of Hoffbrau Dunkel Weiss and a pretzel the size of one’s head. The year before I had ordered several excellent bike maps from the Michigan Department of Transportation that proved to be invaluable during the trip. Despite all the GPS technology on our phones, nothing beats a real map for planning purposes – they help to give a realistic scale of the route that a smart phone cannot due to the size of the screen (and my aging eyesight).
We decided to do the route clockwise, which added a bit of excitement and drama knowing we had to hit certain destinations at specific times to catch a ferry and fulfill our pre-arranged hotel reservations. While the Oak Leaf Trail and Interurban Trail offer excellent connectivity from Milwaukee to Oostburg, they also have a lot of stops and road crossings through Milwaukee, Mequon, Cedarburg and Grafton. We knew we had to get to Manitowoc to catch the ferry no later than 1:30 pm, so we decided to meet early morning in Port Washington and head north, building in a little extra time in case of mechanical issues or a flat tire. Luckily we had no issues, but there was the relentless wind. At one point, somewhere around Whistling Straights, as the grounds crews were preparing for the PGA tour, the wind was so strong that it slowed us down as we were on a descent of a fairly long hill.
With a rest stop at Kohler Andre State Park we made our way through Sheboygan and up to Manitowoc in plenty of time to have lunch and a few beers at The Fat Seagull before boarding the 4 hour ferry ride to Ludington. To our surprise, they served Bell’s Oberon Summer Ale in pint cans on the ferry, which gave us all an excuse for a nap later on the sun deck.
The next morning we headed south out of Ludington on some quiet country roads to the land of rolling hills, big sky and wind turbines. It was a beautiful morning for a 65 mile ride down to Muskegon. With a little help on directions from a farmer working on his tractor in a field alongside the road, we made our way into the small city of Hart, where we found the trailhead for the Hart-Montague Bike Trail. Once on the trail, we all commented on how it seemed as though we were riding through a State Forest, complete with a diverse canopy of hardwoods, steep ravines and ridges and plenty of shade.
We found several unexpected surprises along the trail throughout the day. In the town of Shelby we came across an old car show and fun fair, complete with a catapult game for kids, a WWII tank engine on display and a band of older locals that played hits from the 60’s. I couldn’t get the earworm of Jefferson Airplane out of my head for the rest of the day. Just down the trail a little further in the Town of New Era we came upon the Country Dairy, where we enjoyed an excellent lunch. Chocolate milk was on draught. We were satisfied with a good meal and on our way to Montague.
If there is one thing I can say about Michigan bike trails is that they plentiful and beautiful, but they are not well marked with wayfinding signs or trail indicators. We continued on an unknown, unnamed trail south of Montague until we came across a sign that said “trail ends” – leaving us no choice but to continue on loose sand and gravel roads just north of Muskegon. Once again, my maps proved to be invaluable. We hooked up to the Lakeshore Trail, which brought us right to the front door of our hotel on Muskegon Lake for a great night of fine dining and exploring the local micro-brew pubs.
The next morning we headed down to Holland. Just outside of Muskegon we were joined by a cyclist who pulled out in front of us and kept up the same pace. He offered to ride with us down through Grand Haven, saying that the trail route gets a bit confusing through town. He was right. Again, no signs or wayfinding through the city which would have made it very difficult if it were not for our tour guide, “Mike on a Bike” as he called himself. Mike is 72 years old and rides 12,000 miles a year. He recently rode his bike from Miami to Bar Harbor, Maine. Geez. We all suddenly felt pretty humbled by his presence as he wished us luck on the rest of our adventure.
As we made our way into Holland, the wind was really picking up – almost to the point of being annoying. We made it into downtown and to New Holland Brewing by noon for lunch. As we sat at the brewery the wind continued to pick up, blowing hard and hot from the west. It was at this point I was getting texts and emails from friends back in Wisconsin wondering if we were getting hammered by the diabolical storms rolling through Wisconsin and Michigan. Luckily they came through Holland during the night and we avoided them all.
The goal for the next morning was to leave very early in the dark and get back up to Muskegon by no later than 9:30 to catch the Lake Express Ferry to Milwaukee. After a few bananas, we kept up a strong, steady pace and the 40 mile jaunt went by quickly without incident, leaving enough time for us to grab some coffee and a breakfast before we boarded the ferry. As we waited for the ferry, a grandfatherly gentleman saw our bikes and came up to us to ask about our journey. He shared stories with us of many of his long bike journeys, some through Wisconsin. It’s amazing when you’re riding a bike how many people you meet along the way who have similar stories of adventure and great memories of doing the same.
The ferry ride back to Milwaukee was beautiful – sunny and calm. We sat on the lower deck out of the wind. It was still morning but we decided to have a beer. We were on vacation and the ride home through Bayview, the 3rd Ward and up to Whitefish Bay wasn’t going to be compromised by one morning brew. Or perhaps two, as Greg and I discovered. The ride through Lakeshore State Park and up the Oak Leaf Trail to Andrew’s house brought our long, enjoyable 200 + mile journey to an end.
His family had quite the unexpected-yet-awesome spread of food waiting for us. Our families joined us, enjoying fun stories about the trip over cold beers and excellent food. Thoughts and ideas were shared about the ride for next year. Hopefully we can get some more friends to join us if we plan the trip early enough.