The M/V Puyallup, of the biggest class of Washington state’s ferries, can haul 2,499 people per trip to Bainbridge Island. The 116-foot M/V Sanpoil, aka the Keller Ferry, sometimes carries as few as three across the Columbia—two crew and a passenger.
The M/V Sanpoil has no interior for anyone but operator John Miller. Now his bridge is a few feet wide and suspended over a car deck smaller than a Capitol Hill parking lot. There’s no schedule beyond the first and last run of the day; the captain glances across the one-and-a-quarter-mile crossing to see if anyone wants to board from the other side, and makes the nine minute journey when a passenger shows up.
But what the Keller Ferry lacks in traffic it makes up for in scenery; here basalt walls climb from the Columbia River and scrubby brush dots the tan hills behind them. There’s no town on either side for miles; just a highway that stops dead at the water’s edge. One side of the ferry is in the Colville Indian Reservation, the other in Lincoln County; a similar boat crosses the Columbia 35 miles north at Gifford. The Keller was the very first ferry operated by the state, and the relatively fancy Sanpoil only recently replaced a boat that had been doing the run since 1949.
The Keller Ferry is a rare freebie from WSDOT (fares would be too complicated), a middle-of-nowhere utility in a strikingly beautiful spot. For all the ferry’s charm, says Miller, it’s so easy that it can unsettle visitors. “Sometimes people will get mad about getting a free ride.”