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Backpacking to Unknown Pond

Packrafting on Unknown Pond
Packrafting on Unknown Pond

The town of Berlin, pronounced “BURR-ln”, with the accent on the first syllable, has the feeling of a modern frontier town, where logging trucks, 4×4 pickups, and ATVs outnumber passenger cars. Located in the northernmost section of the White Mountains and New Hampshire, it is the gateway to the remote North Country, a vast region of forest and mountains with few paved roads and even fewer road signs.

My destination on this trip was Unknown Pond, a high elevation pond off the Kilkenny Trail, a 27-mile long trail that links the major peaks between the tiny towns of Stark and Jefferson, NH. Wild and remote, the Kilkenny region of the White Mountain National Forest is like a witches forest, with moss-covered trees and head-high ferns, a verdant paradise for elusive moose and bear.

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Rather than hiking the Kilkenny Trail again, I wanted to explore two side trails that intersect it from the north and south, the Mill Brook Trail and Unknown Pond Trail, before camping at the Unknown Pond Campsite. My plan was to hike, packraft, and fly fish Unknown Pond, overlooked by a mountain called The Horn. Fishing and packrafting are natural extensions to hiking and provide me with a deeper and more satisfying way to immerse myself in the wilderness on my backcountry trips.

I left my car at a small parking area in front of the gate to the Berlin Fish Hatchery (which closes at 4:00 pm) and walked a short distance to the employee “swimming hole”, at the base of the Mill Brook Trail. The Berlin Fish Hatchery is a state-run facility where they breed trout for stocking New Hampshire ponds and streams. It’s also the site of several trailheads that provide access to the northernmost White Mountain 4000-footer, Mt Cabot.

I hiked past several concrete pens filled with immature trout in various stages of development. The pens were covered with mesh to keep predators out. As I approached, I guess the trout could see my shadow, because they started splashing the surface of the water in a frenzy. It just goes to show how a stealthy approach is an asset for an angler when stalking trout.

I started up the Mill Brook Trail hiking alongside Cold Brook, which was flowing well despite the drought we’ve been experiencing this summer in the Whites. Many of the smaller mountain watersheds still have a fishable water flow, but you need to be willing to hike in the backcountry and off-trail to get to them.

The Mill Brook Trail was in pretty good shape, which surprised me because I’d expected it to be less hiked than the others nearby. It does, however, provide access to a famous outlook called Roger’s Ledge, which might explain why it’s hiked so frequently.

The brook was closely hemmed in by the surrounding vegetation however making it to too difficult to fish with the longer 12’ rods I’d brought to fish Unknown Pond. I made a mental note to bring a much shorter 8’ rod the next time I visited.

Kilback Pond and Unknown Pond Peak
Kilback Pond and Unknown Pond Peak

The climb up the Mill Brook Trail was tougher than I’d expected, probably because I was hauling a boat, paddle,and PFD in my pack in addition to my fishing gear and regular backpacking stuff. It was also quite a warm day with high humidity which sapped the strength out of me.

I took a short break when I reached the Kilkenny Trail junction and then hiked up to Kilback Pond, a small beaver pond at the bottom of Unknown Pond Peak. The Kilkenny Trail skirts the pond over bog bridges which are built along the beaver dam. While it was tempting to break my boat and rods and fish it, I decided to delay my gratification until Unknown Pond, so I started climbing. Unknown Pond is south of its namesake peak, so I’d have to summit the mountain to get to its other side.

I was relieved when the pond finally came into view. I decided to take a break and set up camp at the campsite before hiking the northern half of the Unknown Pond Trail. I picked a wooded campsite with the best airflow and pitched my Warbonnet Hammock.

USFS Unknown Pond Campsite
USFS Unknown Pond Campsite

I started using a hammock again, after a ten-year hiatus, last summer and I really like the quality of sleep I get when using one. I’d brought a cuben fiber tarp on this trip to save on some weight and proceeded to set up my shelter system for the night. I hoped I’d be the only person in the camp that night since I’d scheduled my hike for July 5, the day after a major holiday, which is usually a good way to guarantee some solitude in the Whites.

When I’d finished my domestic chores, I packed up and hiked down the Unknown Pond Trail, dropping 1300’ from the Kilkenny Ridge to a forest service road. This trail also parallels a Mill Brook which grew in width and volume as I dropped down lower. It too had an appreciable flow, even better than Cold Brook.

I was out of water when I reached the bottom of the trail, so I filtered some. In the process, the 3-liter platypus reservoir I’ve been using for the past 10 years finally gave up the ghost. The plastic on the side of the cap tore through to the reservoir making it nearly impossible to squeeze water through the Sawyer filter I use. I managed to get enough clean water to hike back up the hill in the heat and to effect a workaround with Aqua Mira later in the evening, but that platy was toast. Excellent value for what I paid for it.

Hiking through head-high ferns and shrubs in moose country can be a bit unnerving. I sing songs to break the silence.
Hiking through head-high ferns and shrubs in moose country can be a bit unnerving. I sing songs to break the silence.

When I got back to camp, I watered up and inflated my packraft for a little late afternoon fishing. It was 5 pm and approaching the time when fish like to feed in the evening. I was on the pond by 6 pm, but it was difficult to concentrate on any one area because the wind blew my packraft across the pond. I quickly resigned myself to nature viewing and patrolled the perimeter of the pond, hoping to spot a moose coming down to the water to feed. No moose. Still paddling around on the cold alpine pond was a great way to cool down after a hot day.

By now, several other groups had arrived at the campsite. and I joined them down by the side of the pond after dinner to watch the sun go down. I was in bed by 9:00 pm and sawing away after a satisfying day.

I hiked out the next morning and bummed a ride back to my car from the trailhead, before setting off on another adventure in the North Country.

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  1. Beautiful solitude, Philip. Thank you for exploring for us. I like reading about the different perspective that pack-rafting and flyfishing bring to your hiking.

    • That was a beautiful spot. I kept saying “Nice, Nice” over and over again in that boat during sunset. Fishing and packrafting just add a deeper level of wilderness immersion for me. Imagine how you feel clutching a living fish (catch and release) as you remove the hook from its mouth. You feel much more deeply connected if only for a moment with the immense life force around you. Hard to explain.

  2. Fantastic photo! How did you take that?

  3. My first time backpacking trip was to Unknown Pond. It was a warm June weekend, so the taking a dip in the water was an intriguing thought to many in group – until we saw the leeches start swimming near the rock we were sitting on. So. Many. Leeches. Very pretty to watch, but nobody dared take a dip.

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