The mail jumpers of Lake Geneva

For the residents who live on waterfront property in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the daily mail delivery comes by boat. The U.S. Mailboat Walworth makes the delivery every morning at 10am from June 15 to September 15, stopping at over 60 lakefront homes. At each dock, the mail girl – or the occasional mail boy – jumps from the boat, races to the mailbox while dodging rafts and dock furniture, grabs the outgoing mail (hoping that the owners haven’t played a prank and tied the mailbox shut!), drops off the incoming envelopes, and then runs back to the boat, which – and here’s where it gets interesting – never stops moving (check out a video here). It’s a process that takes as little as ten seconds, and leaves no room for error.

The mailboat delivery began in the late 1800’s out of necessity. The roads around the Lake were not well developed, so delivering the mail by boat was quicker and more efficient. The tradition continues today, but now tourists can tag along for the delivery on daily mailboat tours run by the Lake Geneva Cruise Line. While watching the girls work, passengers listen to information and anecdotes about the area and the historic mansions on the lakefront.

The mail girls, or “mail jumpers”, are not postal employees – they work for Lake Geneva Cruise Line – but they work closely with the U.S. Post Office. The mail jumper work day begins at 7am with the sorting of the mail and ends around 1pm, after the 2.5 hour delivery tour. Of the hundreds of houses on Lake Geneva, only 60 or so receive their mail by boat because many are summer houses that are only inhabited part-time.

For young adults in Lake Geneva and the surrounding towns, being a mail jumper is a coveted job, and one that requires an unusual application process. Elle Vogt, a two-year veteran mail jumper and a sophomore at UW-Madison, said that when she first saw a video of the mail jumpers, she knew right away she wanted to try out. The tryouts are hands-on: the applicants will make several jumps, first at the pier and then out on the lake, and then give parts of the scripted tour. To get the job, applicants need to show that not only can they quickly make the jump from boat to dock, but that they can also deliver an engaging presentation to the passengers.

Elle says that she really enjoys being a mail girl, but the job isn’t without its challenges. The biggest one of course, is falling in the Lake. Captain Neal has been driving the mail boat for almost 50 years and has seen at least one mail jumper get soaked every season. It’s nearly guaranteed for each mail girl to fall in at least once in her career. Elle had her turn this summer. One wet and rainy day, she was running a little slower than usually down a particularly long and slippery pier. As she made the jump, the boat passed by and she just missed it, landing in the water with a splash. When a jumper misses the boat, they have no choice but to finish out their shift soaking wet. It’s no surprise then that jumpers also need to be strong swimmers to get the job.

The job does come with perks though. This summer, Elle met Andrew Zimmern when he visited Lake Geneva and filmed a segment of his Travel Channel show aboard the Walworth. Andrew jumped mail and received a special package from a fan, a bag of “bizarre food” left for him in a mailbox.

In addition to the mailboat tours, Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers several other lake tours, including an ice-cream social tour, champagne brunch cruise, and a full lake tour that cruises past the stately lakefront homes. Mailboat tours cost $27 for adults and are conducted every day in the summer, including Sundays when the newspaper is delivered.

Disclosure: My ride on the U.S. Mailboat Walworth was covered as part of my stay at The Abbey Resort and Spa, but my opinions of the Resort and the lake cruise are my own. Even without a gratis tour of the Lake, I’d be pretty impressed with the antics of these mail jumpers.

One week in Chicago: Attractions

Chicago in the Summer is one of the most dynamic, energetic and entertaining places in the world. While I hate to over-plan any of my trips, I did have some must-sees that I had neglected on previous trips to the Windy City. I wanted to enjoy some of the museums and culture that the city has to offer, buy I also wanted to explore some of the outdoor views during the perfect Midwestern Spring weather. And, despite all of my previous trips to Chicago, I had somehow never been to Wrigley Field, one of the few remaining cathedrals of baseball.

So, fueled by a tremendous amount of local food, I set out to see some of the many treasures scattered around Chicago. By train, bus, foot and yes, Segway, I saw Chicago’s best spots and finally felt like I had taken advantage of a city that is not lacking in culture or activities.

Architecture Boat TourI don’t know much about architecture. I wish I did. But several of my friends told to me check out Chicago’s myriad skyscrapers and other architectural marvels, many of which are consider iconic. To maximize my time and learn a little something along the way, I opted to take a boat tour down the Chicago River that focuses solely on architecture. There are a few companies that offer these educational boat tours, but I opted by Shoreline Sightseeing’s offering. The 90 minute tour winds down the river and an incredibly knowledgeable guide explained the history and style of Chicago’s many influential designs. While I still am pretty clueless when it comes to architecture, I feel like I saw Chicago from a perspective that I have never experienced before.

Field Museum of Natural HistoryCall me a geek, but the Museum of Natural History in New York is one of the favorite places in the world. Well, the Field Museum in Chicago more than holds its own and is an impressive space with an outstanding collection. It’s home to Sue, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the world. Standing next to Sue, I couldn’t help but feel like a little boy again as I was beyond amazed by the sheer size and ferocity of this long-exctinct beast. The Field Museum is also currently hosting Real Pirates, a phenomenal exhibit on the “Golden Age of Piracy” that is incredibly well done and is a must-see if you are in town between now and October 25, 2009. I lingered in the Field Museum for close to three hours as I marveled at the vastness of its collection.

Art Institute ChicagoRemember when I mentioned that I don’t know much about architecture? Well, art isn’t my forte either. Call me uncouth, but somewhere art history and appreciation escaped me. Still, I enjoy strolling through art museums, particularly on rainy days. So, on one dreary day in Chicago, I wandered downtown to check out The Art Institute’s famed exhibits. While it houses many impressive pieces and would take you some time to truly appreciate everything that it has to offer, you can have a pretty fulfilling experience in just a few hours. I stared at American Gothic for 10 minutes and it alone was worth the price of admission. This iconic painting is oft-parodied, but to see it in person is to feel as if you are experiencing something that transcends art. Well, maybe I just like that viewing such an influential painting made me feel cultured. And with the recent opening to the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, the museum now offers an even more complete view of the many periods and styles throughout history.

Wrigley Field
Built in 1914 and home to the Chicago Cubs since 1916, Wrigley Field is an icon not just in sports but in American culture. The ivy covered brick walls, the red sign welcoming you to the ballpark and the hand-operated scoreboard make you feel like you’ve been transported back in time to a period in history when steroids weren’t the top story and the game seemed pure. I experienced Wrigley twice while I was in Chicago. I took in one game from a rooftop overlooking the stadium and one with a ticket that I scalped right outside the park. If you want a unique view and enjoy all-you-can-eat (and drink) packages, watch a Cubs game from one of the many rooftops across the street from Wrigley. But for the true Chicago experience, get yourself inside. I took the train to Wrigley and arrived an 45 minutes before the game. I scaled not just a ticket but a front row seat! I watched my first Cubs game a mere 18 inches from the field on a gorgeous Spring day. You don’t have to be a Cubs fan, or even a baseball fan, to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of Wrigley Field.

Segway TourSegways are much maligned. They’re a folly that never really had a chance to catch on with mainstream American. Honestly, who was going to commute on a Segway? But for tourism, Segways are brilliant. And, since I am a massive geek, I have always wanted to experience riding one. And what better way to check that off the list than while exploring Chicago? Several companies offer Segway tours in town, but none can match the price of Bike Chicago. For $50, you get more than two hours of “gliding” around town, including an orientation on how to use your Segway. After five minutes it all felt like second nature and I was enjoying every minute of it. We toured Grant Park, the lakeside, Millennium Park and several other sights along the way and the tour guide was patient, helpful and knowledgeable. There may be no better way to see Chicago up close and, well, it’s just plain fun.

There are plenty of other sights to visit in Chicago, and I’ll be covering two very special places tomorrow when I share my experiences with some of Chicago’s furry and scaley friends. What are your favorite Chicago sights? Share below in the comments.

Check out my gallery of these attractions here.

Read about my Chicago food adventures here.