Bridging the Trails Gap: Van Tassel Pedestrian Bridge

Steel bridge over wide creek in winter


Michigan is the #1 Trail State in the nation with 2,623 miles of rail-trail conversions and thousands of miles of other linear multi-use pathways. The word “rail-trail” is coming into more common usage and is defined by the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy this way:

“Rail-trails are multipurpose public paths created from former railroad corridors. These paths are flat or gently sloping, making them easily accessible and a great way to enjoy the outdoors. Rail-trails are ideal for many types of activities–depending on the rules established by the local community–including walking, bicycling, wheelchair use, inline skating, cross-country skiing and horseback riding.”

Oakland County has hundreds of miles of trails of every sort, including rail-trails, and throughout the on-going pandemic, they continued to increase in importance. Trails transformed into pleasurable places to seek solitude and solace with nature, and comfort with close friends. They also presented exercise sites for dedicated trail runners that headed out daily in the dawn’s early light.

No one disputes that trails are a great four-season escape from our daily routines, except perhaps for those of us that already embrace trail usage as part of our daily routines. For daily users, they are the best part of their routines.

Four women jumping with outreached arms on a grassy trail in the autumn
Jumping for joy on a Stony Creek Metropark Mountain Biking/Hiking Trail in October of 2018

Many trail users hold a special fondness for trails that meander through our Huron-Clinton Metroparks and Oakland County Parks and circle back to their starting point. Another group of users favors the rugged trails of our State Recreation Areas managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Hardly a week has gone by without my boots being on the ground on either the Bald Mountain or Ortonville Recreation Areas, sites that I look to as windows to the world of nature on the wilder side of our county.

The West Bloomfield Trail and Michigan Air Line Trail bustled with activity late last month, as did the tiny Rochester River Walk that connects the south end of the Paint Creek Trail with the Clinton River Trail.

Two of the most popular rail-trail linear pathways in Oakland County are the Paint Creek Trail and Polly Ann Trail. That’s where this 2021 trail tale really begins, with a flashback to a beautiful blue sky day in Orion Township on November 9th – That was the day the pedestrian bridge over Paint Creek, officially known as the Van Tassel Pedestrian Bridge, was dedicated, creating a spectacular connection that bridged the gap between those two Oakland County rail-trails, as well as becoming part of the pathway for the new State of Michigan Iron Belle Trail.

JoAnn Van Tassel speaks into a microphone at the bridge dedication
JoAnn Van Tassel at the Van Tassel Pedestrian Bridge dedication and ribbon cutting ceremony

Chris Barnett, the supervisor of Orion Township, hosted the well-attended dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony that honored JoAnn Van Tassel for her more than 50 years of service and dedication to Orion Township and the surrounding areas. Van Tassel is a former Orion Township board member, a former Orion supervisor for three-and-a-half terms, and planning commissioner. She is a member of the township Corridor Improvement Authority and a dedicated trails advocate. “JoAnn is one of the most amazing people I’ve had the opportunity to work with in my entire career, . . . ” Barnett said.

After the dedication, Barnett shared some statistical facts with me. These five caught my attention:

  • A quarter-mile of boardwalk leads up to the bridge
  • More than 140,000 board feet of lumber, enough to build nine 2,000 sq. ft. homes, was used in its construction
  • The bridge itself is 90’ in length and was fabricated by Anderson Bridges in Colfax, WI
  • The bridge weighs 50,000 lbs.
  • There is an 18’ drop off to the ground or a 22’ drop off into the Paint Creek

I also learned that Van Tassel was the Orion Township Supervisor when Orion Township partnered with Oakland Township and the cities of Rochester and Rochester Hills to acquire the old Penn Central Railway line that linked their communities. That 8.9-mile former rail route on the east side of the new bridge is now the ever-popular Paint Creek Trail, the very first rail-to-trail pathway in Michigan. It’s been open for non-motorized travel since 1983 and traverses through Rochester, Rochester Hills, Oakland Township, Orion Township, and the Village of Lake Orion.

The Orion Township Pathway system is a lesser known, but critical component of the overall Oakland County trail connectivity plan. Orion Township’s Clarkston Road pathway connects directly to the Polly Ann Trail from the west end of the Van Tassel Bridge and to the Paint Creek Trail at the east end and is also a segment of the statewide Iron Belle Trail.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources promotes the Iron Belle Trail which crosses over the new bridge this way:

Iron Belle Trail – Two Routes, One Great Trail: The Iron Belle Trail is Michigan’s showcase trail that touches hundreds of municipalities and crosses through 48 different Michigan counties. Using existing trails, networks and new connections, the trail extends more than 2,000 miles from the far western tip of the Upper Peninsula to Belle Isle in Detroit, with a route of bicycling, and a route of hiking.”

The Polly Ann Trail, managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, is a non-motorized route extending north from Orion Township along the former Pontiac, Oxford, and Northern Railroad corridor. The 16.9-mile Oakland County segment of the Polly Ann Trail connects the townships of Orion, Oxford, and Addison, and the Village of Oxford, and ends at Bordman Road at the Lapeer/Oakland County border. The Lapeer County segment continues on with a more primitive trail surface for another 20 miles to North Branch Township.

Even if you are not a trail user, a visit to the Van Tassel Bridge is impressive, and I would even call it a stress reducer. Until my first look at the bridge and the impressive boardwalk, which is part of the crossing, I expected a small structure, since the Paint Creek is shallow and barely 30 feet wide at the crossing site. Mother Nature, and the passing of time since the last great glacier melted, created the necessity of a wide elevated boardwalk that created an enormous bonus for trail users: spectacular views of the wooded ravine below, a ravine created by the flow of the Paint Creek.

I look at the bridge not just as a great leap forward for trail connectivity, but as a destination in itself to embrace nature’s way. I’ve returned to the bridge several times in the past few weeks just to meander along the boardwalk and explore the woodlands and creek beneath it.

The boardwalk and bridge present incredible views and can serve as an observation post to watch Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Cedar Waxwings, and even Eastern Bluebirds and American Robins that overwintered in the ravine, flitting about amidst the trees and shrubs.

If you walk slowly, stop often, look, and listen, the rewards of nature will increase. I’ve seen mink tracks near the bridge, fox tracks under the bridge, and listened to the drumming of woodpeckers, barely audible over the flow of water in the tiny rapids. During a dawn visit two weeks ago, when I was the sole hiker on the boardwalk, I captured a fleeting glimpse of a coyote on a bluff above the boardwalk near Clarkston Road. My quick investigation, after I climbed that snowy bluff, revealed fresh coyote tracks and bits of torn fur confirming the capture of a rabbit at the edge of a thicket. Head for the bridge and nature’s way will greet you!

The Van Tassel Pedestrian Bridge is located in Orion Township near where East Clarkston Road crosses over Paint Creek. A small Paint Creek Trail parking area is at that location. Of note, Orion Township is one of only seven “Pure Michigan Trail Towns” in Michigan and the only one in all of Southeast Michigan. Another bit of trivia that might lure you that way come spring is the knowledge that the Paint Creek is a high-quality coldwater trout stream.

“This year the outdoors have mattered so much for our health and well-being. Trails have been a lifeline for so many people across the country as we seek spaces to safely walk, bike, and build our resilience.” Let those words from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy carry you well into this New Year and help you discover a trail to your liking. For when trails connect, everyone wins, be it on the wilder side of Oakland County or anywhere in the rest of our nation. Visit this link to get started:

Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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