Timber Bridge Reconnects Pigeon River at Ford Lake Road

The new timber bridge over the Pigeon River at Ford Lake Road.

A new bridge and a free-flowing Pigeon River represent both a major improvement in road infrastructure and another big step forward in our longstanding mission to restore one of Northern Michigan’s most beloved trout streams.

The Ford Lake Road crossing lies within a mile of Pigeon River Country State Forest Headquarters. It is well known by visitors and locals as a figurative jumping-off point for fishing or paddling the river and hiking the Shingle Mill Pathway, and as a literal one for escaping the heat of summer with a plunge into the Pigeon River.

As popular as the crossing is for people, Ford Lake Road has also long been the end of the line for fish and other river life because of high-velocity water exiting the old crossing structure. Today, a 44-foot timber bridge ushers trout to a staggering 50 miles of upstream spawning habitat and coldwater refuge. When the old structure was in place, this habitat was inaccessible during heavy rains or high water, as the stream was flowing too fast for the fish to swim upstream through the culverts.

The Ford Lake Road crossing at Pigeon River State Forest Campground in 2020.

Known to many as “The Tubes,” the three corrugated pipe culverts of the former structure at Ford Lake Road were the root of many problems for the river and the roadway. Not just a barrier for fish, fast-moving water also carved a deep hole into the riverbed and washed harmful sediment downstream where it covered important gravel habitats. Erosion of the structure itself forced frequent repairs by the Otsego County Road Commission.

When 3 ½ inches of rain fell on the Vanderbilt area on an October night in 2020, another symptom of the undersized crossing became all too apparent. Swelled with floodwater, the Pigeon River surged over its banks and topped Ford Lake Road, washing away a large part of the roadway and a campsite, sending an estimated 400 tons of sediment into the river. Past washouts like this one had been a recurring source of sediment entering the trout stream and an ongoing, expensive maintenance issue for the road commission.

The crossing after a washout in October 2020.

Construction of the new bridge began in April with site preparation and staging of machines and materials. Timber and sheet pilings were driven with two of the culverts still in place, diverting the stream around the project site to minimize sediment input into the river. With the west abutment done, work shifted in midsummer to the removal of the remaining two culverts and construction of the bridge’s east end. The timber deck was laid in late summer and guardrails were installed by November.

Huron Pines’ Water Program staff observe construction at the site in the summer of 2021.

Visitors returning to the Ford Lake Road site this spring to camp, hike, fish or paddle will be welcomed with a proper and aesthetically pleasing timber bridge heralding a bright future for the Pigeon River.

“I hope people see how beautiful it is now and appreciate that the Pigeon River looks and sounds the way it’s supposed to,” said Lisha Ramsdell, Associate Director of Huron Pines. “I truly believe people will still create memories there that stay with them forever, while knowing the stream is far better off with this new bridge.”

While this restoration is significant in its own right, the cumulative impact it has on the Pigeon River was made possible because of the 2015 removal of the dam at Song of the Morning Ranch five miles upstream of Ford Lake Road. That project, also led by Huron Pines, replaced a century-old dam with a timber bridge, transformed a 45-acre impoundment back into a natural stream and reconnected a total of 45 miles of Pigeon River headwaters. Another four road/stream crossing restorations are planned for 2022 and 2023 to mend the last few broken links in the Pigeon River system.

The Ford Lake Road crossing viewed from above in December 2021.

This project was managed by Huron Pines, contracted by Hillman-based MacArthur Construction and supported by Otsego County Road Commission. Funding support came from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Sustain Our Great Lakes Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Fish Passage and Great Lakes Basin Fish Habitat Partnership programs, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Walters Family Foundation.

This piece originally appeared in our 2021 Annual Report, published April 2022.

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