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Aboard the state's first ferry, time takes a seat

At 6:15 a.m. the Keller ferry approaches the north shore dock on the Columbia River. It carries only 12 cars but is considered an extension of Highway 21.

ON THE SURFACE, there's nothing remarkable about the Keller ferry.

Nothing suggests anyone would fall in love on it, get married on it, plan to have their ashes scattered from it.

It's as plain as a pallet, a floating platform that plies the Columbia River's wide waters upstream of the Grand Coulee Dam.

All day long, 365 days a year, cars and motorcycles and pickups and logging rigs and two-ton trucks loaded with beer drive toward the little ferry along rural Highway 21 in Washington's northeast quadrant.

From the north, the road to the ferry winds through miles of piney forest on the Colville Confederated Tribes' vast reservation. From the south, it rolls along a horizon of rustling wheat in Lincoln County. Either way, when you spot the plank ramp and feel your car sloping toward the water, cut your engine and wait.

It won't be long.

There's hardly ever a line. Even though the Keller ferry is big enough to carry only 12 cars, there are rarely more than that. (Unless, of course, you happen upon the opening day of fall hunting season or a spurt of campground tourists in high summer, in which case you'll need to sit out one or two runs.)

When the state took over the Keller ferry in 1930, the vessel was powered by river current and guided by cable. It carried eight cars and lasted about a decade. In this 1935 photo, before the Grand Coulee Dam changed the face of the Columbia River, Capt. Mel Novotney was in style with his uniform cap and britches.

More likely, yours will be the sole vehicle to board. The deckhand will park you dead center on the raft like a frog on a lilypad throne.

The trip takes 8 minutes. There's not much to do. No snack bar, no vending machine, no video games, no smoking lounge, no passenger bathrooms, no electrical outlet to blow-dry your hair. You can step on deck and watch the basalt butte draw close or recede, depending which direction you're traveling. You can chat with the deckhand and pilot. Or you can remain buckled up and snooze.

Some passengers attempt to dial their cellphones (reception is iffy), flip through the Tribal Tribune or tend to other earthly matters. But making practical use of these moments, given so few, seems like a waste of an opportunity . . . to waste time.

How often, in the endless journey, do we ever get a chance to pause?

Eight unfilled minutes!

Not only that, it's free.

The Keller ferry is the only state-run ferry that doesn't charge. The ride has been free since Washington State purchased the ferry from a private operator on Sept. 1, 1930, for $10,000. The Federal Bureau of Public Roads pledged $140,000 to seal the deal because the ferry was considered a link in the state highway system. As part of the bargain, the feds stipulated the route should have no toll.

Back then, the ferry was tethered to a cable stretched from shore to shore, and powered by river current. The Columbia's waters still flowed swift and narrow. The Coulee Dam didn't exist.

With the wind in her hair, Charyl Seaman, of Connell, Wash., uses the family pickup for a better view as the Keller ferry crosses the Columbia in eight minutes. The Mennonite family had been at an annual campout.

Two decades before the state took over the Black Ball line that crisscrossed Puget Sound, the Keller ferry was underway. That makes the Keller ferry the first, and oldest, state-run ferry. Who would've thought? Washington's original ferry was essentially a river raft floating through eastern scablands, rather than a super-sized saltwater vessel cruising the western coast.

The Keller ferry is also, arguably, the state's smallest ferry.

And maybe its humblest.

Superlatives such as Smallest! Oldest! Only! Free! clash like Las Vegas hype here on the simple dock where flash amounts to sparrows flitting through the guardrails.

Unlike its coastal cousins who slap their keel dimensions on tourist coffee mugs, the Keller ferry doesn't seek marine glamour. It's so understated, it's not even part of the state ferry system. Instead, it's operated by the maintenance division of the State Department of Transportation, Eastern Region.

That mechanical heritage explains the homemade chocks, thriftily crafted from scrap wood and worn-out engine belts.

But what of the ferry's romantic charm?

LOCATION. Location. Location.

Tawny cliffs. Silvery water. Deep quiet. Millions of stars.

The Keller ferry crosses what's now called Lake Roosevelt on a high plateau at the confluence of the San Poil and Columbia rivers. The river basin was sculpted by glaciers when lobes of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet pushed into the Columbia River Valley millions of years ago. Where the plateau drops to the water, stripes of creamy basalt, sandstone, loose shale, mica and crunchy gravel resemble layers of tiramisu.

For commuters, the Keller ferry is a transportation lifeline, saving hours of driving on winding roads. For summer vacationers who return year after year, the ferry is a way of life, simple and slow. At sunset, walk-ons stroll to shore on the south side of the river.

Way in the distance are stoney white mountains, gullies shadowed by sagebrush and pine, lookouts called Johnny George and Hell's Gate. Close by is the vertical granite of Swawilla Basin and a rock formation that looks exactly like a sleeping bear. In between are swaths of huckleberries, serviceberries and choke cherries.

Upstream, at the dam, 8 million tons of concrete hold back the second-largest river in the continental U.S. so a hydroelectric plant can generate, in an hour, more power than a million locomotives.

When the dam was finished in 1944, the river rose 345 feet, drowning 10 evacuated towns, some of the San Poil tribe's sacred burial grounds and the site of a splendid intertribal trading post.

Against a backdrop of ancient glaciers and 12 million cubic yards of concrete, the Keller ferry seems reassuringly human in scale. It is a small, sturdy craft on which to enter a vast landscape.

"My best childhood memories are out here," says Denise Mattern, a Bellevue software trainer who, at 29, has already decided to have her ashes strewn someday from the Keller ferry. "When you're on the ferry and the stars are so bright and the wind is blowing on your face, it's so beautiful and peaceful."

Mattern first visited the boat as a 2-week-old infant, when her parents camped at the park next to the ferry dock. Every summer vacation since, she's been back. She'd hide pennies on board at summer's end and find them again the following year. She'd pole fish from the ferry dock and usually catch nothing. She'd bake chocolate chip cookies for Dave, one of the ferry pilots, who welcomed kids into the pilot's cabin and sometimes, if traffic was slow, turned the boat in U-ies.

Decades later, the pennies are still hidden, Dave is still at the helm, and Denise rides the boat with her daughter, Cierra. The toddler wears a "Keller Ferry" sweatshirt custom-made by an uncle. She is 2. This is her third summer on the Keller ferry.

Janelle Fiorito and Craig Ream are also making a return trip to the ferry, roaring here on their Harley-Davidson honeymoon. Janelle wears black leather pants and a red bandana. She straddles a heritage classic Harley, a customized machine with lots of chrome and ape-hangar handlebars.

It's down-the-hatch for pilot Cody Morava to the engine room to check on the diesel power plant of the 52-year-old ferry.
Using old fan belts and scrap wood, ferry workers improvised wheel chocks for the 12-car Martha S, the current incarnation of the Keller ferry.

Last time she was here, five years ago, Janelle was a novice biker on her first excursion through eastern Washington with her buddy, Craig. After burning up thousands of miles, handlebar-to-handlebar, Janelle and Craig realized they were meant to be more than riding partners. They had a small wedding in Carnation, hopped on their bikes, and, well, here they are. The ferry seemed a fitting destination because, over the years, they've always reminisced about that first long ride.

Janelle was amazed then, and now, that the ferry exists. "It's like a throwback to the past. Not like the Puget Sound ferries with hundreds of people. It's simple."

ON BOARD, the Keller ferry has a flyswatter, an old-fashioned whirling fan, a grimy Radio Shack citizen's band transceiver, sunflower husks, five pencil stubs, 43 pens, a burlap clipboard, Dave's aged thermos, a Swisher Sweet cigar box, a raspberry jelly donut, a brass bell to be rung in case of fire.

Surprisingly, in this era of GPS and radar (also on hand), these vintage details don't look out of place. Initially, though, they make you feel odd, as if you've cruised off the interstate into a sepia-toned photograph.

The current incarnation of the Keller ferry was built in 1948 and named Martha S, after the wife of a high state transportation official. Before that, the state tried a side-wheeler ferry and before that, a 10-car scow with a tug. Neither lasted long.

The original Keller ferry dates back to the 19th century, an oar-propelled boat run by the father of a local tribal chief. That gave way, in the 1890s, to various cable ferries. When the state took over the route, the Keller ferry was a river-powered vessel that could hold eight cars, a load of logs, or a herd of sheep. It was piloted by the late James Novotney and his son, Mel, who wore britches and a proper sailors cap at the helm. Younger brother Jim eventually took over — two generations and a combined total of more than 100 years. If you look closely at the deck, you'll spy "Novotney" hand-welded onto the metal treads.

Jim, now 77, was married on the boat in 1982, introduced to his bride, Viola, by a deckhand who happened to be her son. The minister stood in front of the pilot house and the guests gathered 'round until the boat tipped so much they had to spread themselves on the deck to make it balance.

"I just couldn't think of a better place to get married, could you?" Viola laughs, tending to the garden.

"One of the most beautiful days of my life, " Jim says.

Molly Severns, of Republic, cradles her 2-week-old son Morgan as Dad Tom stays up front in their pickup. Taking the ferry saves miles and heavy traffic on their way to Spokane.

The couple lives in a cottage just up the road from the ferry dock — almost 20 years after the wedding.

Sixteen families live in Keller Landing, a tiny hamlet within walking distance of the ferry dock. More than half the families are related, in some way, to the ferry. It's as if the ferry were a great-grand aunt.

From his perch in the pilot house, Dave Coffman can see the farmstead where he grew up (and still lives); his uncle's house (his uncle was also a ferry pilot); the fields of wheat, barley, peas, oats and millet he cultivates with his children; the orchards of Red and Golden Delicious apples he helps irrigate.

"I grew up there," he says, pointing at a slope of green rising into the arid hills. "That was my home place. When you grow up someplace and you move, you don't have any place to call home any more, really. Why would I want to move? I'm not a gypsy. Here's where my life is, always has been."

Dave started as a deckhand when he was a teenager. Now 51 and a pilot, he's still on the boat.

"Almost every job has its boring moments. But not too many people get to watch sunrises and sunsets the way we do."

Back and forth, eight minutes a trip, 40 or so crossings in a nine-hour shift, four seasons a year.

In the spring, when the black locust trees by the shore finally drop their leaves, the parched hillsides green up so much you could be fooled into thinking this wasn't arid country.

Summer is golden and balmy with evenings that streeeeeeetch for little kids to stay up late, cupping their hands over nickel-size toads on the bank.

The sun shifts angles in the fall, tucking deep shadows into the mountain folds. The air is clear and crisp, unless there are fires.

In winter, all textures turn white. Snow sticks to the granite faces, the sandstone bluffs, the straw switchbacks. It splats on the pilothouse windshield, freezing into an icy mess. If the lake freezes, the crew spells each other 24 hours a day, running the ferry continuously to keep a clear channel.

The littlest ferry
The Keller ferry on rural Highway 21 carries up to 12 cars on an eight-minute trip across the Columbia River upstream of the Grand Coulee Dam.

Last time, winter of '78-'79, there were 18 inches of snow, 22 inches of ice and 63 days when the temperature didn't rise above freezing.

Christmas morning, when Dave was walking to work with Wayne Fisher (retired after 32 years on the ferry), they noticed a remarkable red shaft of light above Eagle Rock, shimmering Northern Lights. The glow lasted until 7 when the sun lit things up.

Have you ever heard of a moon rainbow?

Senior ferry operator Cody Morava saw one once from the ferry, an array of grays like a silver rainbow, arching over Johnny George Lookout. There was rain, and a full moon, and exactly what other ingredients, he still wonders.

WHEN YOU ASK regular riders to talk about the Keller ferry, they offer two types of stories.

First, transportation. A faster route to work in Grand Coulee, to school in Wilbur, to home in Keller, to the hospital and PX in Spokane.

Take Milton Goodwin. The ferry helps connect his family, which is split by divorce and a river. Some of the kids live with him in Republic, others with their Mom in Keller. A ferry can't rescue a marriage, but it sure saves endless miles of winding roads.

The second category covers fatal tragedies (the apple truck that plunged into the water because the driver didn't realize the road ended at a ferry dock); drunken and foolish behavior ('nuf said); and wild weather, including a small tornado from the south. (The ferry waited out on the lake, landing only when the wind and whitecaps had calmed enough to dock.)

Deckhand Roland Downing waits for the ferry to glide to the ramp at the south side of the river, where a handful of homes and a campground await.

"I like the stormy days, the rough ride, when the water washes over the deck," says Angie McKay, the mail carrier, who rides the ferry four times a day, toting 6,500 pieces of mail.

Then, if the ferry hasn't yet docked, regular commuters turn back to chatting with Pilot Barry Tilson or deckhand Roland Downing or Travis Angstrom, who, after three years loading the ferry, got to know one of the passengers well enough to ask her to marry him.

Barry makes this observation: "Believe it or not, we can tell whether people are from the east side or the west. The people from the west are more likely to lock their car up when they get out, and take the keys. Ninety-nine percent of them are from Seattle."

He glances around the tiny platform surrounded by water. "Who do they think would try to steal it? Where would they go?"

Exactly. Around here, on a plateau marked by glaciers and granite, folks are anchored, not anonymous. It's not like Seattle, where Jumbo Mark II ferries plough through Puget Sound, bloated with commuters who have never met the captain.

The newest, and largest, of the Washington State Ferries' fleet, the Puyallup, can carry 218 cars, 60 trucks and 2,500 people. It travels at 18 knots an hour.

The Keller ferry's top speed is a third less than that, and it usually cruises even slower, slow enough for everyone to savor the ride.

Paula Bock is a staff writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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