Unknown Pond Peak is the 100th highest mountain on the New Hampshire Hundred Highest peakbagging list, a list that I’ve been slowly working on since 2012. I haven’t done an off-trail trail hike for a while since I’ve been pursuing The White Mountains 4000 Footer Grid for the past two years (hiking the 48 four thousand footers in each calendar month of the year). But I’m now “grid-locked” until November, having finished the 48 in June, July, August, September, and October, so I can’t make any more headway until November, December, and January come around again.
With that said, I decided to climb Unknown Pond Peak because it’s a short easy bushwhack that would give me a chance to dust off my compass and GPS navigation skills and help me rebuild my off-trail navigation confidence back up again. I’ve done enough off-trail hiking to know that there are aspects and intuitions that can become atrophied if not used on a regular basis and that it’s prudent to gradually ramp up again over a sequence of more challenging routes before tackling the “big stuff” that remains.
While I’ve loved gridding these past two years, there’s something deeply satisfying about hiking off-trail for me and the heightened level of awareness it requires versus following a well-marked and heavily trodden trail. Whereas the goal of gridding it to bag a summit often by hiking a well-blazed trail, the goal of off-trail hiking for me is in choosing an “elegant” route to reach the summit that minimizes the amount of energy required. This combines some upfront planning with local optimizations which can only be discovered on the ground because the local geography and vegetation coverage is not represented adequately on maps and can only be experienced firsthand. Topographic maps have limitations (“they lie”) in between the contour intervals, something that you can readily appreciate when hiking off-trail when small cliffs and toppled trees block your route.
Unknown Pond Peak is also located in the Kilkenny Region of the White Mountains, north of Berlin NH, and way off the beaten track. A veritable rainforest, the trees of the Kilkenny are often bearded with stringy moss and hanging vegetation, not unlike a witch’s forest in children’s fairytales. Despite this, it’s a pretty benign place dotted with small ponds, beaver dams, small streams, and smaller-sized hills with good hiking trails and campsites. There are also some scenic highlights in the region including the Devil’s Hopyard, Roger’s Ledge, Mt Cabot, The Horn and The Buldge, Mt Waumbek, and North, Middle, and South Weeks Mountains that are well worth a visit.
The actual bushwhack to Unknown Pond Peak is quite short, maybe a half mile in and a half mile out. But it has a fairly long approach hike (approximately 4 miles) up the Unknown Pond Trailhead and a short distance along the Kilkenny Ridge Trail from the Berlin Fish Hatchery, a sprawling complex where trout are bred in open pens to stock the lakes, ponds, and streams of northern New Hampshire. It’s quite an amazing operation that you can see in action.
After the bushwhack, I planned to continue north along the Kilkenny Ridge Trail before hiking back to the Fish Hatchery on the Mill Brook Trail, before looping back to the Unknown Pond Trailhead on the gravel York Pond Road, a total distance of about 12 miles. I’ve hiked all of these trails several times in the past, but it’s been at least 6 or 7 years ago and I was eager to revisit them because I like this area so much.
The day I hiked this loop it had rained the night before and was drizzling when I left the trailhead. The rain was supposed to taper off though, and while bushwhacking in wet weather really sucks, I was eager to go anyway. I carry all the right clothing and gear for hiking in rain and I figured I’d be ok as long as I was hiking and generating heat, no matter how wet I got. Still, that was a calculated risk based on experience, as hypothermia, even in moderate temperatures, is a very real risk if you get soaked when hiking or backpacking.
The hike up the Unknown Pond Trail was pleasant and fairly moderate, although quite wet. I was wearing trail runners for this hike and they were soon soaked by the water running down the trail, as were my pants, from rubbing against the vegetation along the sides of the trail. When I arrived at the pond, it was fogged over by low cloud blocking views of the surrounding peaks. That was a pity because I’d been looking forward to that view (shown here).
I turned onto the Kilkenny Ridge Trail at the trail junction and headed to the height of land, which is the high point where water flowing downhill changes directions and demarcates one watershed from another. I stepped off-trail here and headed into the woods, angling in the direction of the Unknown Pond Peak summit. The forest was relatively open, meaning that there were few obstructions in my path like downed trees, with a sparse understory of ferns and other leafy greens.
While there was, thankfully, no herd path indicative of overuse, there were open seams in the forest where I could make rapid forward progress toward the summit. Direction finding was trivial on this hike because the summit comes to a point; in other words, you’ll eventually reach the top if you just keep on hiking uphill. As I approached the top, I was on the lookout for the summit canister, which is usually a glass or plastic jar, or a PVC Pipe closed at both ends, that contains a log book where people sign-in. I’m pretty good at spotting these canisters attached to trees, but sometimes they require a lot of searching, especially when the summit is flat and doesn’t come to a clear high point.
I found the canister easily enough though, opened it up, and scanned the recent entries to see who’d been up the peak lately. There’s no requirement that you sign the logbook and some people don’t bother. There’s no formal authority overseeing this bushwhacking game, but signing the logbook is a fun way to connect with the handful of other whackos climbing these off-trail peaks. There are NOT a lot of people who bushwhack, really bushwhack, these more esoteric mountain summits instead of downloading GPS tracks and following the carrot to the top. Call me OG (old guard), but I still like to read topo maps, navigate by following landforms and use a compass when I hike off-trail. It’s more intellectually challenging that way and just more fun.
I signed in, closed the canister back up to keep the logbook dry, and started to hike back down to the Kilkenny Ridge Trail. Leaving a summit is harder for me than hiking up to one and I frequently get lazy, a habit I’m trying to break, when picking a line off a peak. Instead of whipping out my compass and plotting a route, I head back in the direction I thought I’d come. Only, it quickly became apparent that I was hiking down the back side of the mountain and not the side I wanted. This is why I was doing a practice bushwhack – to remind myself of my common mistakes and tendencies, especially on descents.
I always hike with a watch that has an altimeter, so I can usually figure out where I am on a topographic map simply by finding the corresponding contour. Rather than backtracking, I simply followed the contour – staying at my current elevation – but moving around the mountain to its other side before descending back to the Kilkenny Ridge Trail and continuing north past Kilback Pond.
Kilback Pond is a small pond that’s slowly being taken over by beavers. But I think was in a lot worse shape when I hiked by it the last time when I was doing a full Kilkenny Ridge Trail Traverse and Cohos Section with my old friend, the one and only Guthook, in 2018. Still, there’s a section of the trail where you have to hike across a beaver dam (the bog bridges have been incorporated into it) to cross one of the pond’s outlets. This is only going to get worse, so hike it soon.
The rain had tapered off by the time I reached the Mill Brook Trail Junction and my pants were dry by the time I’d hiked down Mill Brook to York Pond Rd and the Fish Hatchery. From there, it was about an hour road walk back to the Unknown Pond Trail. This was somewhat longer than I’d anticipated but then again I hadn’t really planned it out in great detail. That said, this was still a nice loop hike and a good practice bushwhack for what should be an interesting summer of off-trail hiking.
Recommended Hiking Navigation Tools
I carry and use all of these navigation aids on hikes, both on-trail, and off-trail, in addition to a paper map. The most reliable tool is the compass, by far, because it only relies on the earth's magnetic field to operate. The others are also excellent, but they can generate false positives in the field and it's useful to have a compass along so you can verify the information they provide.
- Casio ProTrek Solar Powered Altimeter Watch - are you sick of changing or charging your watch's batteries? This multi-function watch is solar-powered and the watch band is replaceable. It never needs recharging and I never take it off. It has time, date, compass, temperature, altimeter, barometer, stopwatch, backlit display blah blah. I mainly use the time and the altimeter.
- Suunto M3 Declination Adjustable Compass - great compass. Set the declination and forget it. True north eliminates ever having to add or subtract degrees when going back and forth with a map and compass. I have the M3-NH (Northern Hemisphere) model. They also have an SH model and a G-model, which means it's a global compass that can be used north or south of the equator.
- GaiaGPS Navigation App - there are some things about Gaia that really annoy me, but they have a lot of different maps and map layers to help you figure out where you are in the field. I mainly use the Gaia Topo and TF Outdoors base maps with the Slope Angle and the US Roads layer, which has forest/park service roads, fire roads, some snowmobile trails, and unpaved roads. You can't carry all these maps at once unless they're available in digitized form on your phone.
- Caltopo - Caltopo doesn't have the programming staff that GaiaGPS does, but I still like it much better than Gaia's route planning tool. This is what I use on my laptop to plan and document my hikes. It's also very convenient for big picture planning especially when you're trying to block out a number of alternative routes. Caltopo also has an app, but I like Gaia's much better.
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