Sail away – Memories of riding Lady of the Lake when it was a ferry

Lady of the Lake in Clear Lake, Iowa, was once a river ferry.

It amazes me that as you go through life, how connected we all seem to be. For me, a personal connection involves a boat. The Lady of the Lake will take its daily tours around Clear Lake, Iowa, throughout the summer months. The owners are celebrating the boat’s 30th anniversary on the lake this year. As it turns out, I rode on the boat long before it became a cruising boat and found its way to North Iowa.

Lisa and I took a cruise on Clear Lake aboard the Lady of the Lake two years ago. I didn’t know then the detailed history of the boat.

The story of the Lady of the Lake and me dates back to the early 1970s, in a rural part of Nebraska. Before a four-lane bridge was ever considered to connect Nebraska and South Dakota between Niobrara and Springfield, people had to take a ferry boat if they wanted to cross the Missouri River to either side. Otherwise, the closest bridge was about a 45-minute drive east.

The Missouri River was once crossed via ferry boats.

The ferry boat was small, able to carry 2-3 cars and a few people. I’ve been on some large ferry boats in the Seattle area that carry hundreds of cars and people to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton. The Missouri River boat was nothing like that.

I remember the ferry boat as open-air. You could stay in the car as you made the trip across the river – maybe 30 minutes? – or you could stand along the rail, looking down in the water or admiring the bluffs on the South Dakota side or the trees and hills on the Nebraska banks.

Eventually, a bridge was constructed to connect the two states between Niobrara and Springfield. The need for the open-air ferry ended. Along with it, the boat’s life on the river. Mark Twain may have written about it had he been around.

Standing Bear Bridge was named after the Ponca chief, famous for his lawsuit against the United States in the late 1800s, which resulted in Native Americans being determined to be humans.

Gary and Karen “Pinky” Geist operated a small business on the Santee Indian reservation, about 12 miles from Niobrara. The couple bought the boat in 1985 – the last remaining paddle wheel ferry in operation in the United States – with the thought to offer cruises in the area. Their plans changed and they ended up relocating to Clear Lake, Iowa.

Clear Lake
The Lady of the Lake still uses its paddle wheel.

The Geists visited with companies that offered river or lake cruises to gauge how they wanted their boat to look. They had the boat transported to a facility where a second level could be built. It operated as an open-air cruise boat for a few years. The Geists enclosed the lower deck. People could rent out the boat for events, such as wedding receptions.

Clear Lake
The Lady’s first-floor dining/reception area was once used to haul cars across the Missouri River.

They operated the boat for several years until Pinky’s health required a change in plans. Since then, the boat has gone through a few owners. It’s currently owned by Scott and Niki Monson. The Monsons had their first date aboard the Lady, where Scott has been the longtime captain.

Clear Lake
A cruise around Clear Lake takes about 90 minutes. You can see a variety of things on the cruise, including boaters looking for the best spot to fish at.

Whenever we’re in Clear Lake during the cruise months, we look for the boat. We hope to time it right and take another lake cruise. Maybe, we’ll see you on deck.

For more information and schedules, check out the Lady of the Lake at