Lake Geneva mailboat tour has practical purpose, too

mailboat-jumpWith three blasts of the whistle, to signify that we’re backing up, downtown Lake Geneva’s most unique boat tour begins.

For the next 2.5 hours, about 160 passengers get acquainted with Geneva Lake as Capt. Neill Frame slowly navigates the waterway counter-clockwise. He is at the helm of Walworth II, built in 1967.

The vessel’s 1916 predecessor was devoted to public service, and that’s still kind of the case today, but the practical work is trumped by customer entertainment.

Wearing a microphone is Thomas Peck, age 17 and in his third summer of work. His ongoing narration is an engrossing blend of facts and myths about local history, architecture, antique boats, the lake and more. Much focuses on 1870-1920, a heyday for this “Newport of the West” tourist town.

“Most of the homes you see are summer homes,” he says, regarding the many massive estates that are passed. Then comes a bit of name dropping, the heavyweight property owners of bygone years: Wrigley. Sears. Maytag.

When he’s not talking, Thomas is jumping off the boat as it slows from one dock to another. He carefully sprints to mailboxes on piers, then leaps back onboard, again and again.

The 60-ton boat never stops until it returns to its departure point, Riviera Docks, and by that time up to 60 lakeside homes (of the 1,200-plus docks on the lake) have gotten a visit from the mailboat jumper.

There is no charge for this form of mail delivery, offered June 15 to Sept. 15. Passengers are invited to write postcards during the tour and get them hand-canceled with the U.S. Mailboat stamp.

“The mailboat and jumpers follow the same procedure, to the letter, as they did in 1916,” explains a Lake Geneva Cruise Line press release. “Jumpers pick up mail at the post office, hop aboard the mailboat at 10 a.m., drop off the mail at mailboxes installed on residents’ piers, gather outgoing mail and jump back on the boat – while the boat keeps moving.”

The excursion is billed as “a first-class tour,” perhaps the only one of its kind in the world, and among the oldest mail delivery routes in the nation. The nautical deliveries began 100 years ago because of marshland near Geneva Lake and a lack of lakeside roads.

Mailboat jumpers, such as Thomas, try out for the job. Both agility and narrative abilities count. So does passion: “I have grown up my whole life looking out my window and seeing the mail jumper,” says Thomas, whose sister Shelby was a mailboat jumper before his work began. Their parents are all-year lake residents.

The exercise, Thomas rationalizes, is good conditioning for other pursuits. The Badger High School senior is on the school’s sailing, ski racing and golf teams.

He only missed a jump once: “My hands were on the boat but then my feet slid.”

Some passengers learn, a little too late, that sitting on the right while facing the captain is more important than upper vs. lower deck seats for this excursion. That provides the best view of Thomas at work.

Two mailboat jumpers usually split the work, but not on this day. “I promise you, it’s going to get a lot more exciting than that,” passengers are told, after Thomas makes his first spurt and delivery look effortless. Throughout the sunny morning, the jumper’s timing is perfect, often back on board with a few seconds to spare.

The U.S. Mailboat Tour is offered daily until Sept. 15, and a ticket is $35 ($33 for senior citizens, $20 for ages 4-17). Tour time is 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and boarding at Riviera Docks in downtown Lake Geneva begins at 9:30.

Lake Geneva Cruise Line also offers other excursions on Geneva Lake, no-meal to sunset dinner cruises. A ticket for one adult is $27 to $65. cruiselakegeneva.com, 262-248-6206

Want more exercise? Walk a part or all of Geneva Lake’s 21-mile perimeter and pass an array of mansions, retreats and beaches. The path is clearly marked, and local businesses sell guides to describe points of interest along the way.

Remember to use a restroom before beginning the adventure. Some people park cars at the start and end points of their planned hike. Or check Lake Geneva Cruise Line schedules about when and where to catch a ride back to downtown Lake Geneva.

Consider these distances and average walk times: Lake Geneva to Williams Bay, seven miles, three hours; Williams Bay to Fontana, 3.5 miles, 1.5 hours; Fontana to Linn Pier, 5.5 miles, two hours; Linn Pier to Big Foot State Park, 3.3 miles, 1.2 hours; Big Foot State Park to Lake Geneva, 2.5 miles, one hour.

For more about the area: visitlakegeneva.com, 262-248-4416.