A moose trotted through my camp while I was eating dinner. Startled the hell out of me and him. I’d heard some commotion on the river below the embankment where I’d hung my hammock, but ignored it while I sat there cooking dinner. The moose popped out of the forest and ran about 20 feet in front of me. Our eyes locked in mutual recognition as he passed, and then he galloped off.
I was half expecting something like this to happen on this trip. I was up in the remote Kilkenny section of the White Mountain National Forest, part of the North Country. Things are just a bit wilder north of Rt 2, where fisherman and hunters, and ATVs and pickup trucks, far outnumber hikers and hybrid cars. While the mountains are not quite as high, getting around is much more difficult because paved roads are few and far between. That opens up a lot of interesting options for exploration by foot, bikes, boats, ATVs, and snowmobiles, which have a big following in the north country.
On this trip, I was bikepacking Bog Dam Road, a 15 mile gravel road I’d scouted the previous summer near the Berlin Fish Hatchery. Officially National Forest Road 15, it loops around the headwaters of the Upper Ammonoosuc River in a section of dense forest that was once the site of numerous logging camps. The topography of this area is also interesting. It’s a small valley bounded by tree-covered slopes. The river is quite small here, but it has a relatively wide flood plain that extends past the river banks. Bog Dam Road loops around the top rim of the valley. The road only comes down to the river at its the northeast end where the riverbed widens and there’s good fishing access.
I’d parked outside the gate to the Hatchery and rode down its paved access road to the Road 15 gate. I passed the gate and crossed the West Branch of the Upper Ammonoosuc, which looks like it has very nice trout habitat: not too wide and lots of boulder gardens for fish to hide in and feed. I kind of wished I’d brought a Tenkara rod, but I’d purposely left it at home because I wanted to just ride my bike, scout the area for future bushwhacks, and camp. I knew the biking would tire me out and I wanted to catch up on my sleep after a hard week dealing with family stuff.
Most of Bog Dam Road’s elevation occurs in the first four miles of the road. It’s gradual but you can see and feel the horizon rising. Luckily, it wasn’t too warm, (despite being mid-August) but I was loaded down pretty heavily with gear, food and water and stated sweating pretty quickly. The surface at this end of road was fairly loose and sandy, which also made the climb more challenging. There’d been some recent bridge work and the Forest Service must have reinforced the road with more gravel to bring in heavy equipment.
But there was a payoff. After I’d reached the top of that first big slope, the next 10 miles of Bog Dam Road were smooth sailing and downhill most of the way. I picked up speed and flew through the forest, stopping occasionally to scout the streams and note the logging roads that intersected the road. I was having fun tearing down that road, the wind in my hair (so to speak). I’d picked up a new gravel bike a few weeks ago, a Diamondback Haanjo Trail, and it’s been a real joy to ride, with shock absorbing low pressure tires and a lightweight frame.
Riding a gravel bike is hard to describe. It’s just like riding a road bike with drop bars, but with knobby tires like a mountain bike. The tires provide traction and some cushion, but your experience on any given day will depend on the type of surface you ride on, and whether it’s loose and granular or densely packed.
Why gravel? Thirty percent of the roads in the United States are unpaved and many of them run through pristine wild areas. While you could explore them in a honkin 4×4 truck, riding a bike provides a more intimate experience with more frequent animal sightings because you make less noise. Add in the element of camping and there’s an enormous amount of overlap with backpacking, although you can cover a lot of ground much faster. Add in a fishing rod or a packraft…well you get the idea. I’m still a backpacker in my bones, but there are lot of unpaved logging roads in northern New Hampshire that you wouldn’t want to hike on foot, but that a gravel bike makes accessible.
I rode to the end of Bog Dam Road and then looped around its north end back to the other gate. It’d only take me a few hours to ride, but I was done for the day, having driven up from Boston that morning. I found a nice campsite and settled in for the night.
This wasn’t a big adventure, but seeing that moose up close was a nice flourish. This was also my first solo bikepacking trip and a confidence builder for longer trips to come.