Deep in the northern reaches of the White Mountain National Forest by the headwaters of the Upper Ammonoosuc River is a dirt and loose gravel road where silence reigns when the sun sets. Gone is the swoosh of the wind, the bird songs and the buzz of annoying mosquitoes.
That silence is magnified when camping alone and can make for "Blair Witch Project"-like nightmares with a simple twig snap or something small sounding very big when dropping on the tent. But the quiet is welcome even if there is surprising cellphone coverage. Check in with the wife, then it’s sleep mode.
The tranquility is found by bicycle on the forest road that was once a northern outpost during the early days of White Mountains mountain biking before single track ruled the landscape.
Forest Road 15 has many names — Bog Dam Road, Bog Dam Loop Road, Kilkenny Loop Road. It’s about a 15-mile winding and canopied passageway that snakes by a water supply source for Berlin at Godfrey Dam.
From it, hunters, hikers, wildlife watchers and anglers pursue their passions. The road’s also been used to support the local timber and pulp industry and now along the way are free scattered primitive campsites with fire rings but no services like picnic tables, portable toilets and water. Find a site and it’s yours for up to 14 days.
For dirt-loving cyclists, the road is both a fine hilly gravel grinding loop and decent habitat for a bike-packing overnight. Plus, it being a circuit only one car is needed for the journey thus reducing the need for two vehicles, a shuttle, hitchhiking or coaxing a friend to help.
About 8 miles or so from downtown Berlin, the road meanders through the unincorporated township of Kilkenny that has more deer, bear and moose than people.
With its logging history, 47 was the most people who lived there according to the U.S. Census. That was in 1900. Now, its most famous inhabitants could be its 4,000 footers in Mount Cabot and Mount Waumbeck.
Surrounded by northern communities like Berlin, Milan, Randolph, Jefferson, Stark, Northumberland and Lancaster, the Kilkenny as it’s known to North Country locals is loaded with hardwood and spruce-fir forest, hiking trails like Kilkenny Ridge, and waterways. Fishing enthusiasts will find the Berlin Fish Hatchery on York Pond Road, just off Forest Road 15, as well.
The loop that uses all of Forest Road 15 combined with about two miles of pavement on York Pond Road makes for a 17-mile polka-dotted shaded journey. I decided to go it alone on an August afternoon packing basics like tent, sleeping pad and sack, water, food, first aid and bike tools.
I first stopped at the Ammonoosuc Ranger Station in Pinkham Notch to double check on parking found off Route 110 at the junction of York Pond Road and Forest Road 15 at a couple of pull-outs near where the Kilkenny Guard Station, destroyed by a 2004 fire, once stood.
From there, the road is initially gentle as it heads south soon paralleling the river with its raspberry bushes. The first of the campsites quickly spring up, already occupied with vehicles of all sizes. But I learned there appeared to be a good two spots per mile that undiscriminating cyclists might be happy to bed down for the night. Along the way, the route grew hillier and more remote while crossing bridges, some paved, over rocky streams and by gated dead end forest roads.
I figured going about halfway before camping but pressed on, enjoying the solitude. At about 12 miles, the lone view came in of a rippling Mahoosuc Range in western Maine and wind turbines on Berlin’s Jericho Mountain. Blasting downhill a few hundred yards, a campsite called my name. I came to a quick halt seeing the welcoming site with ferns, mine for the night, and made camp.
Enclosed by outstretched trees and a large stone fire ring, I used a newspaper I carried, saving the word puzzles, to start a small fire as previous inhabitants left wood and cigarette butts. I did puzzles for a while, enjoyed a light supper and was asleep early to awake at daybreak with the chirping sunrise symphony.
An early morning 5-mile spin started in shadows on the dirt and finished with a last stretch on pavement, closing out a solitary circuit in the great northern forest that will explode in color come fall.