Kilkenny Ridge Trail 6/16

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Sep 3, 2003
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Gorham NH
I had a chance to go revisit the Kilkenny Ridge trail yesterday to join my friend on her redlining quest. This trail and I go way back as I was one of the folks who blazed the entire length of it one Columbus Day weekend back in I believe 1989 or 1990. It was the last major long trail built in the WMNF and was the tail end of when the National Forest trail crew actually built trails on occasion instead of rebuilding beat up old trails. It also was a WMNF only effort, the AMC pretty well stuck south of RT 2. The intent was to build the trail and then shut down some of the side trails including York Pond eastside, Bunnel Notch, Mill Brook and Unknown Pond north. That obviously never happened.

We met at the Bunnell Notch trailhead at 7:30AM as she was driving up from Mass (lucky she is morning person). We then drove to Jefferson and headed up the Starr King Trail around 8:30 AM. The bugs were aggressive at the trailhead but once we got going they were not an issue as long as there was some wind. The lot wasn’t full but expect we were a bit early. We hiked steady up to Starr King noting the flagging put in place for this summer’s major work on the trail. The RMC is the trail maintainer and they have gotten matching funds for their pro trail crews to do heavy water bar work down low and the club will be having several volunteer sessions to build up volunteer hours to be applied in lieu of matching funds.

We made it up to Starr King and didn’t stay long. Every time I hike across the ridge between Starr King and Waumbek, the view is opening up more and more. The softwoods on top are getting more mature and dying off especially near the top of the trees which has opened up the canopy and contrary to other locations in the whites, the usual tangle of competing understory vegetation hasn’t moved in. The forest floor is carpeted with ferns and seasonal ground cover so many views through the trees appear. We stopped at the actual Waumbek cairn for a brief moment and then headed down to the view for a break. The blowdown patch is getting larger at the view and working its way up slope, I wouldn’t be surprised if summit of Waumbek gets a view one day.

We had not seen any gray jays all day but eventually two showed up. They were initially a bit skittish and I fed them a few raisins. They started to get closer and then a gray bird of similar size started dive bombing them and calling loudly at them. It wasn’t interested in food but definitely wanted the gray jays out of there. Gray Jays are omnivore so they may have been threat to eggs or hatchlings of the gray bird. They disappeared and the gray bird flew away only to be repeated a few more times. Not sure what the issue was but the gray bird was definitely territorial. There was a recent double blowdown blocking the trail so I had my saw and dealt with the worst one and cleared a partial path.

After the break we headed into redline zone for my friend and I remembered a classic winter “hike from hell” 15 years ago. The ridge line in this area has the same characteristics as the stretch from Waumbec to Starr King to a much larger extent. The top of the ridge is broad with large old softwoods well spaced with most missing their top canopies, the forest floor is carpeted with ferns. What used to be shady hike under a dark canopy is now wide open to the sun. The trade off is there are a lots of over mature dead and dying 8 to 16” softwoods. There was a late fall windstorm a few years back and there were numerous blowdown that would have made the hike very difficult. Someone went through the trail with a saw and cleared a path through them but a new generation of blowdowns is starting to build up again. There were a few spots where crawling over and under was the choice but frequently we just went out around them. Note the trail bed is very obvious, almost no need for blazing but hopeless to follow in winter as the woods are wide open. The blowdowns ramped down a bit as we made the climb up South Weeks but once we started dropping down off from the summit on the east slope there is multi acre blowdown patch that the trail winds its way through. A path has been cut though the older ones but newer ones do slow progress. There is a distinct boundary to the patch and then its back in woods with a bit more shade.

Middle Weeks is not an obvious summit but the hike down into the North Weeks col is long. One of my “sins” from long ago was a I submitted a trail report to Gene the editor of the WMG after our initial blazing trip and I mentioned a camping spot with water in this col. He misunderstood my comments from when we first blazed it and yes we did camp there and after about an hour and half of searching we found a boggy puddle in a mossy rock field that yielded a black colored liquid that when decanted multiple times and then pumped through a filter yielded drinking water. I expect many a backpacker has gotten confused by that description. The reality of the KRT is that between the Starr King Spring and Bunnell notch there is one water source on the north side of Willard notch just before the ascent up Terrance and even that source can go dry later in the season. We did encounter one flowing drainage on the side of Middle Weeks but expect it long gone in August. The summit of North Weeks is quite broad with open softwoods and carpeted with ferns. I can still see the old strap grown into a tree where the old 100 highest canister was located. There is a campsite with fire ring off an obvious side path. Great place to camp if you are willing to haul water up from Willard Notch (a long ways down). The north slope of North Weeks is classic mature softwoods, the trees on this north slope are far more healthy with denser canopy. The trail switchbacks down to base of the slope.

The old York Pond trail intersection in Willard Notch is substantially grown in. We took a break in the middle of the trail and was surprised when 5 backpackers showed up heading south on the KRT. There was not much wind and the bugs were aggressive so after a short break we decided to make a go of the Terraces. The climb up South Terrace is well graded through big birch glades. The trail bed is now quite obvious so peeling blazes on whites birches are not an issue. My friend had the summit spur already from a prior NH 200 list so we skipped the summit spur and headed north. With the exception of an intermediate rocky bump not very far north of the terrace summit the trail sticks to the broad ridge with a full canopy. Its nice woods but pretty standard. We finally came out on the north summit which strangely the NF had left the summit sign in place. The National Guard used to use this mountain for training events where they would cut a helicopter landing site. When we first blazed the trail 30 years ago, the top of this summit had a “haircut” it had great views to the east west and north towards the ledges and boulder field on Cabot. It is now grown up thick with smaller crowded softwood and the only view is the next sickly moss covered tree.

After a seemingly quick hike down to the Bunnell Notch Trail we then headed down BunnelL Notch trail. Normally this is quick hike down but the long hike made it slower than expected. We ended up at the car around 6:45 PM and the bugs that met us made for quick departure. My friend’s calculation is about 5000 feet vertical gain and a little over 15 miles. The drive back to Jefferson to get back to my car was standard but I knew I was down on water and electrolytes. I downed a liter and ½ with a Nuun tablet and when I got to the trailhead I could feel my muscle in cramp mode. I let my friend head out and then I mixed another batch of Nuun and had to spend 20 minutes walking around slowly until things loosened up a bit so I get in my small econobox. Once home it took several hours before I felt I got my hydration back in balance. That seems to be new challenge the last few years. I don’t really get sore legs during the hike but post hike I am always on the incipient state of severe muscle cramps.

Overall a great hike on great day without many folks on the trail. If the car spot wasn’t so long I expect it would be popular trail.
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I appreciate your detailed description of the traverse of the Weeks since that's the one section up there I don't have on my resume. I did the Terrace loop a few years ago and while hardly spectacular, it was an enjoyable hike. Of course I did the Cabot loop and the out and back to Waumbek on the 48 quest. Thanks again. You write well and I like reading these long story posts.
Thanks all, That Weeks traverse is a nice piece of territory that I think a lot of folks miss due to the logistics. Over the years I have shuttled a few folks when their schedule and mine line up. The woods on the ridgeline from Waumbek to South Weeks are definitely unusual, I really cant think of any other ridges with similar growth in the whites. Its rare to have a mix of large mature dispersed softwoods with no understory. It really opens up the views. I don't know of any in the whites, I can think of a few ridges on the AT in maine but that is about it.

A bit more history of the trail is at one point the Randolph Foundation along with TPL owned the Pond of Safety valley when they bought the large block of Hancock timberlands (formerly Brown Company) in the Randolph area (with some overlap into Jefferson) around 2000. The plan was to sell the valley lands to the WMNF as they were an inholding and keep everything south of the Crescent Ridge for the new Randolph Town Forest. There were no active trails to the Pond of Safety from Randolph as this valley had been heavily managed for timber and trails tended to get obliterated. There were some historical trails at different points in time but none active. The forest service let folks know that it was highly unlikely that once the WMNF bought the land that it would allow any new trails to be built as it was resource intensive and the management plan for that region was for unorganized dispersed recreation which was government speak for no new trails or campsites. If there were trails in place prior to the purchase they could be supported. The folks in Randolph met and dug through every old hiking guide they could find and came up with two trails that existed at one point. They hired a pro trail crew to scout and eventually build the new route of entirely new trails under the guise of restoring old trails and thus resulted the Underhill and Four Soldiers trails.

During the discussions, I and a couple of others advocated for a new trail north from Pond of Safety up Pond Hill and then up to the KRT following a SE ridge. This in combination with the northerly end of Pond of Safety road (currently maintained as a snow machine trail) would connect up with Bog Dam loop road and make for some interesting extended backpacking loops. Unfortunately the locals who controlled the club at the time did not feel that they wanted additional traffic on their north of RT 2 trail network and trailheads by non Randolph residents. I expect the results of this discussion may be different today now that RMC has a large trailhead with parking on the end of Randolph Hill road and with the addition of the glade skiing area the approach seems to welcome more use by non residents than in the past given their shrinking active club membership.

The FS had mentioned that a possible grand plan for Pond of Safety was for a new developed campground like Russell Pond. Had that happened I expect that the connector to KRT would have been built but given FS budgets and priorities I don't see the Pond of Safety campground concept on any budget unless some congressman creates an earmark. I expect like most the Kilkenny's it will remain an out if sight spot where the FS can do active forestry without too much hassle from the general public like the Mill Brook Valley to the north (minus a beautiful pond).
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Great trip report and historical info. Sorry to hear membership is struggling with The RMC. Certainly is a different kind of flavor in that neck of the woods. I remember doing The Weeks back in the mid 80's in Winter for the first time. At that point there were less than 200 trampers whom had completed the NE100. In those days the KRT did not exist but one could access the southern end of York Pond Trail without controversy. After accessing the ridge to The Weeks from that direction rather than retreating I descended back to York Pond Trail from the col between the South and Middle peaks. At the time this was a rather unique open woods experience that was very enjoyable. Not quite sure how much later from that time doing Waumbek and venturing over to the outlook I remember seeing The KRT connecting from the Weeks for the first time. It must have been not that long from when it was first constructed because it was not on the Maps.
Not sure RMC membership numbers are struggling as much as the active local members who are actively hiking seem to be going down. My guess is getting an on line presence may have increased membership of folks who are not necessarily Randolph yearly or seasonal residents. Like every other outdoor club, RMC appears to be getting "gray". There are still a lot of active older members for the social events but fewer hikers. My encounters in my early years in the area of RMC was there a very distinct difference made by many older members between those members who lived in town and those who did not. The folks who ran the trail crew side of the club didn't care but the social side seemed to. I did notice the square dance under the lights at Lowe's store got upgraded to the barn at Sugarplum farm this year.

I remember when we blazed the KRT, we all signed into the North Weeks register and expected we would be the last as bottles and registers were only on trail less peaks. I expect I would have been following your path if I hadn't helped blaze the KRT as I think my 100 highest was in the 300s.