The stubby blue ferry is not the one on postcards, picture books or the cover of Washington’s official highway map.
Even from the water, in a much smaller boat, the vessel that gives Keller Ferry its name is not imposing or marvelous, like the four-story behemoths that ply Puget Sound. It mocks Walt Whitman’s description of ferries as “streaming, never-failing, living poems.”
The Martha S. is not much larger than the houseboats tourists rent to explore Lake Roosevelt. It doesn’t have a restaurant, restrooms, video games or coin-operated telescope. Its voyage lasts just 10 minutes.
Modest it may be. But to a handful of people living on either side of the reservoir, and to a growing number of tourists, the 12-car ferry is as lovely in function as its picturesque West Side cousins.
Miss the last run at midnight and the 90-mile drive from Spokane to Keller, on the Colville Indian Reservation, grows to 130 miles. Roller-coaster roads make the extra distance seem even longer.
Miss the boat, and miss a good bit of history, too.
Ferries once crossed the Columbia River everywhere the landscape provided a good launch site. Cables, horses or men pulled some of the boats. Paddle wheels and steam engines pushed others. They carried cowboys and Indians, bootleggers and prostitutes, miners, livestock, wagons, trucks and trains.
Now, there are just three Columbia River ferries, two on Lake Roosevelt. The Columbian Princess runs between Gifford and Inchelium, 60 miles upstream from Keller Ferry. Like the Martha S., it is a free ride.
Passengers pay to ride a Columbia River ferry that runs between Washington and Oregon about 30 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean.
The others - at least 93 of them since the mid-1800s - were doomed by 11 dams that widened the river and buried ferry landings underwater. They were made obsolete by 22 bridges providing non-stop crossings.
“The age of the ferry is past,” said Dr. Robert Ruby, a Moses Lake surgeon and co-author of the 1974 book, “Ferryboats on the Columbia River.” “I think we lost something when they left.”
The Keller Ferry launch, where the Sanpoil River enters the Columbia, is a natural. Upstream, the Columbia is hemmed by steep, rocky crags. Here, the landscape softens, providing a route to the water’s edge.
Entrepreneur and legendary outlaw “Wild Goose” Bill Condon ran the first ferry at Keller in the 1840s. The state Department of Transportation christened the Martha S. in 1943, two years after Grand Coulee Dam had backed up 130 miles of river.
“If we had our druthers and the money, we’d like to have a bigger (ferry),” said Dick Shroll, department supervisor in Davenport. “It’s getting a little tight for some of the bigger RVs.”
Sixty-thousand cars and trucks made the toll-free crossing last year, said Shroll. None will ride it next Monday through Friday morning, when the Martha S. will be drydocked for maintenance and a Coast Guard inspection, an inconvenience forced on travelers once every five years.
“I had to check the map” for an alternative route, said Christine Peterson, who commutes 360 miles once a week between her home in Danville, 85 miles north of the ferry, and her insurance company job in Bellevue. The 1 1/4 miles on the river is the most peaceful 10 minutes of the trip, she said.
At Gifford, where the Columbian Princess is the latest in a long line of ferries, the crossing takes just six minutes. Twenty feet above the car deck, in a pilot house raised on bowlegged stilts, Daryle Marchand pivots his chair 180 degrees at the end of each crossing to prepare for the trip in the opposite direction.
“It’s easy as driving a car,” said Marchand, who’s been piloting the mustard yellow ferry since November. “It’s kind of boring up here.”
Built in 1981, the 16-car vessel is owned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was operated by Columbia Navigation Inc. until last year, when the Colville Confederated Tribes took over the contract under a law that encourages tribes to run federally funded ventures that serve reservations.
They may lack pizazz, but the Columbia boats are not as impersonal as their Puget Sound brethren. Riders on the West Side fleet can wait hours on shore before there’s room on a ferry.
“If we fill up and have to leave somebody (at the landing), we try to go back for them” as soon as vehicles waiting on the other side board for the trip back, said Marchand. “We don’t like to leave anybody waiting too long.”
Marchand recognizes most commuters, but he guesses about 80 percent of the summer riders are tourists heading for Twin Lakes or one of the reservation campgrounds. The Columbian Princess log from one recent weekday showed 328 cars and pickups, 11 boats and trailers, 18 buses or commercial trucks and two tractor-trailer rigs. The customers included Snyder’s Bakery, FritoLay, Walker’s Furniture and United Parcel Service. Other trucks carried logs, concrete, milk and garbage.
“When fishing opens up, the traffic starts,” said Marchand.
Some passengers pass the time watching wildlife.
Marchand saw a bear near the Inchelium landing last week. Martha S. deckhand John Rivera watches eagles daily and has spotted bobcats, moose, cougars and elk on rare occasions.
“The other day, I saw six bucks,” said Rivera, a pair of binoculars dangling from his neck. “I’ve seen one wolverine in 25 years and lots of bears.”
That’s something most Puget Sound ferry riders won’t see.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color) Map of Columbia River, Keller Ferry area
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Ferry schedules The Martha S. runs between the Colville Indian Reservation and Keller Ferry, a community 14 miles north of Wilbur. Its hours are 6 a.m. to midnight each day. The Columbian Princess crosses Lake Roosevelt between Inchelium and Gifford about 30 miles north of Fort Spokane. It runs between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., leaving the east side of the lake on the hour and the half hour. It leaves the west side of the lake at 15 and 45 minutes after the hour. Both ferries are free.