Finding my way back to the small campsite on the Dead River, where it enters the Silver Lake Basin, was more difficult than I had planned. A maze of logging roads, mostly impassable in my small car, wound their way from the Peshekee Grade (north of Champion, MI) past Wolf Lake Road and over to Wildcat Canyon. While this area is within Kennecott's planned 'Wilderness Road', a proposed route from Republic up to their mine on the Yellow Dog Plains, it currently has few good roads and is all but impossible to navigate. After an hour of logging roads, I finally reached the campsite and parked near the firepit, more than ready for my hike.
Earlier in the year I had embarked on an overly ambitious route around the entire Silver Lake Basin. There are several really interesting locations along the northwest shoreline that I skipped during that hike out of sheer exhaustion. Today I was going to revist these spots. While I only had a few hours of daylight left, my planned hike included Wildcat Canyon, Cole's Creek, and the Silver Lead Mine Lakes. These three spots are conveniently close to both the North Country Trail and the dewatered basin, which gave me a great loop hike with plenty of scenic spots along the route.
From the campsite I had parked at, a four-wheeler track leads west across the stained Dead River and along the basin's shore. I found it on my earlier hike but foolishly chose to cut straight across the dewatered basin. Once the Dead River enters the weed-choked basin it widens out into a deep, muck-filled channel, creating an impassable barrier with unpredictable twists that makes simple straight paths across the basin laughable. Today I cut straight across the river on the path, staying clear of the basin for several hundred yards until the four-wheeler track ended at what appeared to be a makeshift boat launch site or fishing spot.
I waded out into the grassy basin, easily finding Wildcat Canyon Creek as it flows out of the canyon into the basin. A small, fast-moving creek swirling around rocks, this creek was shallow enough for me to cross it multiple times as I followed it upstream. The woods quickly closed around me once I exited the basin, forcing me to stoop under branches and circle around brush on my trek westward. I knew nothing about this creek, drawn here by an interesting name and a sharp topographical drop, but was quickly rewarded by a series of waterfalls pouring over old, mossy rocks.
The last time I was this surprised by the amount and variety of falls along a creek was a few miles to the east at Mulligan Creek. Starting with jumbled trips over boulders, the falls grew to long slides within slick chutes and cascading plunges over mossy outcroppings. There were no trails or worn paths and I had a great time bushwhacking around the drops, enjoying the wild and natural area of Wildcat Canyon Falls.
A grassy swamp ended the falls, most likely part of the larger standing bodies of water known as Wildcat Swamp. My westward adventuring stopped here here on a rocky outcropping overlooking the swamp. I turned and headed back east along the creek. The North Country Trail had crossed the creek just above some of the upper falls, though the blue blazes had been difficult to make out in the thick woods. The trail took me uphill quickly along the northern edge of the canyon, offering some limited views to the other side of the canyon and some views east to the basin.
While the trail was pretty to follow through the thick, sun-speckled woods, it offered few views of the basin below. I did enjoy the area though - this is a fairly wild area. There are few roads north of the Silver Lake Basin and the quiet woods and huge trees were a most welcome environment. There is some logging far to the east, along the eastern shore, but I was in the midst of some wonderfully untouched old growth and truly enjoyed it.
The North Country Trail soon led downhill to Cole's Creek. While this creek cuts a deep canyon into the tall outcroppings of the northern shoreline I didn't notice anything interesting here. Swarms of black flies and stagnant-smelling water promised swamps along the creek, and I saw no sign of waterfalls or good views upstream. Hoping for some basin views I cut away from the trail, climbing the rock faces on the east side of the creek, and was rewarded by sweeping vistas of the basin below.
After resting on the scenic outcroppings I cut due east into the thick woods. The North Country Trail had faded away this far east (it doesn't follow the entire shoreline) and I had one more sight to visit, with or without a path. While the woods were thick and the sudden outcroppings forced me to wind and climb repeatedly, I soon bumped into the shore of the southern Silver Lead Mine Lake. The brush around the lake was very thick making me fight my way to it's outlet and an unobstructed view of the small lake.
With a name like Silver Lead Mine Lake I was on the lookout for a mine shaft or some ruins, but the lakes did not offer any hints. I gave up and headed downstream along the outlet creek back towards the basin. This creek had several small waterfalls (though they paled in comparison to Wildcat Creek) interspersed with swampy stretches, and I had to make my way downhill carefully. After the first drop I found what I was hoping for - a submerged shaft from the old mines.
I happily trotted down the rest of the way, finding some smaller waterfalls and plenty of old bleached logs along my route. The base of the outlet creek was pretty neat, surrounded by logs and striped with sharp veins of quartz, and I rested on a towering boulder here for a bit enjoying the bubbling creek and unique views of the dewatered basin.
The last part of my hike was the least enjoyable, though. Cutting across the Silver Lake Basin, avoiding the Dead River's muddy channel and pushing through the young undergrowth, was something I was not looking forward. Also, UPPCO has been slowly restricting the river and filling up the basin, creating waterlogged areas that snuck up on me and blocked many of my attempted routes. After a fair bit of double backs I made it back to my car with wet boots.
Happy that I had finally visited some of the highlights of the Silver Lake Basin I drove off in the deepening evening towards my planned campsite. I had finally seen the Silver Lead Mine Lakes and Wildcat Canyon Creek, both of which could easily warrent a return trip. While Cole's Creek was a disappointment, I do plan on following it upstream towards Mulligan Creek on a future all-day hike with hopes of finding a small waterfall. Overall this hike was really amazing (with the exception of cutting through the basin), and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a couple-hour adventure in some of the wildest and most scenic land that the Upper Peninsula has to offer.