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Drive-in or Walk-in? In Michigan We Need Both

Posted on February 14th, 2020

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Walk-in or drive-in? In Michigan there is a need for both types of access but not on the same lake. That’s the debate they’re having in the Upper Peninsula over the future of Silver Lake Basin. The latest Trail Talk blog looks at the issue and how a proposal to change access to walk-in would alter the 1,214-acre lake near Marquette.

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By Jim DuFresne

It’s amazing what a gate and a short trail can do. They can turn a lakeshore sprinkled with trash and toilet paper, dotted with blackened firepits and illegal campsites, into a quiet stretch of beach where the only boats you can see on the water are powered by paddles.

Jim DuFresne

Because once you ban vehicles from being driven to a lake, you not only change the users, you drastically change the appearance of the area.

Or at least that’s reasoning behind what the Michigan DNR is proposing.

Early this month the DNR held its first public hearing in regard to Silver Lake Basin in Marquette County and one of its proposals was to make its primitive boating access site into a walk-in-only facility.

Silver Lake Basin is a 1,214-acre impoundment in the Dead River watershed. The 3.3-mile long lake is incredibly beautiful with an undeveloped shoreline composed of bluffs on north side that tower more than 400 feet above the water.

In 2003, the Silver Lake Dam made national news when its fuse plug failed, causing a massive flood to wash down the Dead River. The settlement with the power company that owned the dam resulted in the state being able to acquire an access site on a lake whose shoreline up to that point was almost entirely controlled by corporate forest interests or non-public-use entities.

Silver Lake Basin is a 1,214-acre impoundment in the Dead River watershed northwest of Marquette.

After obtaining the site in 2015, a scenic cove on the lake’s northeast corner, the DNR announced it would maintain it as a primitive access with no infrastructure development. Thanks to the access site, the popularity of Silver Lake Basin has increased since then but so have management problems.

“There has been random camping in areas without available services such as vault toilets and refuse removal,” said Deb Gill, park supervisor at nearby Van Riper State Park. “Consequently, there has been an increased presence of toilet paper litter and human waste left throughout the shoreline property.”

Last year visitors also parked their campers in the cove for the entire summer. Beyond the camping and garbage, there are also concerns about invasive species hitchhiking into the lake on boats people are trailering in.

“We think a walk-in-only access site will help us curtail these problems while helping to maintain the scenic and quiet character of the Silver Lake Basin,” said George Madison, DNR fisheries manager. “This lake is very well-suited as a quiet-sport recreational fishery for small boats such as canoes, kayaks and other carry-in watercraft.”

Thus a proposed gate across the two track and a trail to the lake.

Walk-in or drive-in? Should you be able to park your camper on the beach or be required to carry that canoe to the water? That’s the debate.

At the first public hearing the overwhelming opinion was to keep the cove open to vehicles but improve the access site, perhaps turn the rough two-track into a gravel road and add port-a-johns and trash containers. Maybe even a cement ramp so larger boats or jet skis could be launched.

But that’s to be expected. That was locals speaking out because the meeting was held in Negaunee, one of the closest communities to Silver Lake Basin. Nor will that opinion change much in April when additional public hearings are held in Ishpeming, Houghton and Ironwood.

There will be none south of the Mackinac Bridge.

“At this point I don’t believe there will be any hearings in the Lower Peninsula,” said Gill.

Why not? Us trolls and flatlanders don’t count?

A young paddler pulls his boat across a portage at Pretty Lake Complex, a non-motorized area in the Upper Peninsula.

I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of public access sites in Michigan – whether it’s on state, national forest or county land, doesn’t matter – is drive-in. They’re often chosen as a way to open up a lake or an area to everybody, including senior citizens, handicap-challenged visitors or people who just don’t have the endurance to carry a kayak or a tent down a trail.

Nor does every situation have the qualities that make for a quiet, “wilderness-like” experience people are willing to walk to. Why would you put in a walk-in access site if across the lake people already driving in and launching their bass boats? It doesn’t make sense.

But Silver Lake Basin does, it offers a rare opportunity to meet the growing desire that Michiganders have clearly shown for quiet, non-motorized outdoor adventures in undeveloped areas. Walk-in has proven extremely popular at places like Wakeley Lake Semi-Primitive Area in the Huron National Forest or the Pretty Lake Complex in Lake Superior State Forest where short portages lead to quiet weekends.

“We get that,” said Gill. “There are some areas you can’t open up to everybody because of the remoteness or ruggedness of them. So we manage them more like a wilderness and that changes the users. That’s good too.”

Especially for those of us on the south side of the Mackinac Bridge.

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