Monday, August 18, 2014

A taste of the Kilkenny Wilderness 8/15/14

Working title: Solitude is where you find it

Peak: Roger's Ledge (2965')

Trails: South Pond Road, Kilkenny Ridge Trail, Devil's Hopyard Trail, Unknown Pond Trail, York Pond Road, Mill Brook Trail

Mileage/time: ~24 miles, ~5100' of gain, book time of 14:35, actual time of 10:19

New redlining miles: 15.1

"Oh to have a lodge in some vast wilderness. Where rumors of oppression and deceit, of unsuccessful and successful wars may never reach me anymore." ~ William Cowper

Terming the Kilkenny Region as a wilderness is a misnomer, though only in an official sense. As the northern bastion of the White Mountain National Forest, it sees relatively few visitors, and is a boon for those looking for a quiet corner of the forest. Much like the Wild River area to the southeast, fires in the summer of 1903 (burning an estimated 30,000 acres), effectively ended large-scale logging operations. Since then the Kilkenny has, by and large, been left to its own devices. There were proposals in the 1970's and 1980's, to have it designated a wilderness, and its current classification as an inventoried roadless area, has kept it relatively free of cutting. The Kilkenny Ridge Trail itself was cut in the late 1980's, as a long distance backpacking route, for those wanting to avoid the crowds elsewhere. This is truly a wilderness gem, hidden in plain sight.

With much too little sleep (broken record), I headed north in the dark. Stark, NH is a long way away, so thankfully Ma Nature decided to put on a good sunrise show. Can't say I've ever seen a sunrise rainbow before!

Keoka Lake in Waterford

Rainbow forming

Morning rainbow

Navigating through Berlin, I missed (didn't turn around for) a stellar photo op on Rt. 110. Shame. Turning on to South Pond Road, I soon realized that I'd arrived too early. South Pond Recreation Area is an odd beast in the WMNF, as there are posted hours in the summer (10am to 8pm, the road is gated otherwise), and a fee is charged at the gate (though if you're hiking, it's supposedly free to park assuming you have a parking pass). This tacked on a 1.1 mile road walk, each way. I ended up "retiring" the Frankenshoes, and picked up a pair of La Sportiva Bushidos, figuring this would be a good way to break them in!

Arriving at South Pond, I found the trailhead, and started in. The morning turned out beautifully, with low clouds, blue skies above, and temperatures in the mid-40's. Not August weather at all. The lower reaches of Kilkenny Ridge Trail were very pleasant, with soft duff underfoot, winding through the forest.

South Pond beach

South Pond

Kilkenny Ridge Trail

At 0.7 miles, the trail branched, the right leading to Devil's Hopyard. It's described as a mini Mahoosuc Notch or Ice Gulch, just narrower, and shorter. It's a fair description, as there was some decent scrambling, made more fun by evilly slick rocks. Devil's Hopyard Stream could be heard percolating and roaring below my feet. Reaching a large rock face, the trail ended, with a sign. Back through, I returned to the Kilkenny Ridge.

Trail and stream, rising together

Devil's Hopyard

Verdant mosses

Mossy and bouldery

Devil's Hopyard


Devil's Hopyard

Back on the Kilkenny Ridge Trail, the going remained easy. There were some grown-in sections, but blazes (in this section, yellow plastic blazes) were frequent, and the trail was easily followed. Accompanied by the faint rustle of the wind through the trees, the miles went, and the feet felt pretty good in the new shoes.

Nearing Roger's Ledge, the trail steepened up a bit, but soon leveled off. Approaching the ledge itself, I got barked at. The dog, named Diesel, was great, and eventually let me pet him. Him and his owner Hannah, were out for a couple of days, going for the whole range. We chatted for most of my stay, enjoying the views and the warmth of the morning sun on the granite.

The trailless Pilot Ridge

The Carter and Presidential ranges over the Crescent Range

The massive lineup of the Mahoosuc Range

Deer Ridge

Wishing Hannah and Diesel farewell, I took my leave. They proved to be the last I would see of people or canine all day. On my way, I checked out the summit ledge of Roger's Ledge, with its survey marker, and Presidential view.

The rare Forest Service survey marker (most benchmarks are USGS)

Steeply down, I checked out Roger's Ledge Tentsite, and passed by the junction of Mill Brook Trail, where I'd be in a couple of hours. Ahead lay a section that I was somewhat worried about. The White Mountain Guide describes the section as crossing a beaver-flooded area, where bog bridges may be floating or submerged. Thankfully, it appears the Forest Service has been hard at work this summer, as new bog bridges greeted me in the swampy areas surrounding Kilback Pond.

Hardhack or Steeple Bush (Spiraea tormentosa)

Unknown Pond Peak over the marshy Kilback Pond

Bridging the mire

Climbing now, quite gradually, the trail crests over the northwestern shoulder of Unknown Pond Peak (a NHHH peak), through beautiful open birch glades. Something tells me there may be a Kilkenny backcountry ski trip in the works. Being alone, and being close to noontime, I didn't want to push the daylight envelope by bushwhacking to the peak, especially with another 15 miles to go. It'll be there another day. Dropping down to the pond, I went north to the junction heading up to the Horn, and then checked out the view from the pond itself. Four years of hiking in the Whites and this is the first time I've been to this iconic spot. It surely didn't disappoint.

Wavy-leaved Aster (Aster undulatus)

The Horn from Unknown Pond

Now descending, I trucked on down Unknown Pond Trail. For a trail that seems to receive a lot of use, from day hikers and backpackers alike, it appears to be very lightly maintained. I never found it hard to follow, but it is very grown in, especially in the upper and middle sections. The lower section is in better shape, though markings along the whole length of the trail are basically nonexistent. There were some bright spots, in the form of more glades and openings that provided decent views. Sooner than I expected, I was out at the lot on York Pond Road, where one lonely car sat. Pulling a sandwich out of my pack, I started down the road, lunching on the move.

View out to North Weeks

A look back at The Horn

I didn't see a single vehicle, or person, on my 2 mile road walk, though I'm sure some folks were working at the Berlin Fish Hatchery. Reaching the trailhead for Mill Brook Trail, I started up. Initially, it heads around a small pond, then takes an obscure sharp left upslope. The rest of the trail was easy to follow, with only a few brushed in areas, and also sports some new bog bridges. It rises gently, alongside Cold Brook, which is within earshot, but not necessary in sight, thanks to the undergrowth. My friend Mike spent a summer as a teenager, working from a spike camp on this trail, though sadly couldn't join me for this outing. I told him I'd come back with him to check it out again. Pulling away from the brook, the trail reaches the height of land, rising and falling with the terrain, before finally dropping down to intersect Kilkenny Ridge Trail, below Roger's Ledge.

Steeply now, I re-ascended Roger's Ledge, where clouds had now spread across the sky. Views were still strong, but the wind had picked up a bit, and instead of stopping, I headed out. In the zone, the hike out went very quickly, and before I knew it, I was pulling up beside South Pond. There was only one car in the lot, and there was no one manning the fee station, so I headed back out to the gate.

The long drive back to Portland commenced, and I ran into some fresh paving on 110... too bad they couldn't be doing something about the stretch through Berlin itself. I arrived home with enough time to get some light dinner and beer. Then the sleeps took hold.

The new shoes held up well, were comfortable, and had good traction. There's something that's puzzling too, this is probably the first three-season hike I can remember, where I didn't roll an ankle. I'm definitely crossing my fingers, that this becomes a positive trend!

In the spirit of new trails in a somewhat unfamiliar area, this one had a lot of bang for the buck... even with the road walks! It fortified my feelings on the Kilkenny, that it is more wilderness than most of the wilderness areas in the Whites. I can only hope that it continues to preserved.

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