A Kingdom Sampler: Bikepacking Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom
Brandon and I were running out of daylight. Miles short of our goal, we pushed our bikes through dense forest and around jagged rocks, lifting them over blowdowns on a barely visible trail that seemed more a figment of my imagination than reality. I had been nervous about this scenario all day- and now my fears were materializing. We were hitting the most difficult section of the day at precisely the wrong time. The thick woods were closing in around us, further choking out what little light remained in the gray skies above. Just as I began to consider retreating to the road we crested out of gully and my perspective changed completely.
There’s a fever sweeping the backcountry adventure community. I know where I caught it, and I know when it sank its claws deep into me. This is the story of how I caught the bikepacking bug.
At the end of last season my friend Brandon sent me a link that described the Cross Vermont Bikepacking Trail, and told me he was interested in checking out some of the course. I happily agreed to tag along, not really understanding what that might encompass, but interested in the adventure nonetheless.
Mike showed us his bikepacking rig, a tricked-out Trek Stache, and we discussed some of his gadgets, insights and advice that were hard-earned on his two previous years of riding the course. Mike also pointed me to his blog, which had some decent information on putting together a bikepacking setup, as well as stories from his adventures. Mike and Jody’s enthusiasm was infectious and come September I followed the race closely on LiveTracker ,celebrating as they both met their goals: Mike beat his previous time, and Jody set the women’s grand-depart record, shaving five days off her previous mark.
Over the summer I also started to put together my own bikepacking setup- borrowing heavily from Mike’s experience and recommendations. I obtained a framepack from Defiant Packs, and a bevy of bags from Revelate Designs. I strapped these onto my Rocky Mountain Sherpa, which I modified by adding an Alpkit Love Mud Confucious handlebar to give extra space for tethering handlebar bags and gadgets. I also invested in my first hammock, purchasing a Hennessy Hammocks Asymmetrical Expedition Zip, and added some quick set-up/breakdown modifications including the snakeskins, webbing, and repel rings. My choice of a hammock over a tent was a bit risky, given the fact that I had never even slept in a hammock before.
Knowing that my daily-use hydration pack wouldn’t be big enough, I also invested in an Osprey Manta 28L hydration pack. Given my positive experience with their hydration reservoirs, I was hopeful that the backpack would be similarly well-thought out and constructed. I also carefully developed a route for my first bikepacking trip. All I needed was a window of time to get away for a couple days- a difficult task for anyone with two small kids.
The first few miles of our course followed the Gold Trail, which I knew from the two times I had ridden the Circumburke Trail Ride. By coincidence, the Circumburke was scheduled for the following week, which probably contributed to the excellent condition of the trail. A long spate of dry weather also helped eliminate much of mud that I recalled from previous rides. We rolled steadily along on the playful single and double track through Victory and around Burke Mountain to Kingdom Trails.
From the far northwestern corner of Kingdom Trails we started a long road climb. After less than a mile of pavement we rolled onto a dirt road that carried us up onto a ridge where we were treated to beautiful views of the open rolling hillsides surrounding us. To our West we could see a high forested ridge with wind turbines spinning in the brisk breeze. Through a gap just below the ridge a powerline cut a swath through the forest. I wondered aloud if that was where our route cut westward.
Just then, a sudden “bang” snapped me back to the present as a large rock kicked up by Brandon’s rear wheel impacted with the back of his bike. I saw it out of the corner of my eye and immediately thought it was trouble. Fearing a broken frame or a severed derailleur we stopped, but couldn’t find any damage. Crises averted. For the moment. We still had another fifteen miles to cover on my ambitiously planned route before reaching our intended destination: Craftsbury. I had been reading about the trails around the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, as well as their outrageously good food, and had wanted to check them out to start our second day. But we were far short of our destination with fading light, and with the looming obstacle of the untested trail ahead.
My GPS breadcrumb trail suddenly veered into the woods. As we sat on the road, we couldn’t see any signs of a trail. I even rode a few hundred yards further, looking into the woods for any hint of a trail. We found only a few large granite slabs- the kind placed at a trailhead to stop a car from driving onto old logging roads. But high grasses and weeds hid any signs of passage. There was nothing else to indicate that there *might* be a trail lurking underneath. And so it was going to be a bushwhack. I rolled in, sniffing around, and followed what could have been a game trail, or was it the path? As I rolled further into the woods, what looked like it might be a depression in the leaves wound its way into the forest. I called to Brandon who reluctantly followed me into the woods. The “path” was more of a hike-a-bike, climb over trees, and through bushes obstacle course, than a “let’s relaxingly roll through the forest” track. After a few hundred yards I spotted blue ribbon tied to a tree and realized that the path was marked. But was this a hunter’s trail or was it going to lead us to the road on the other side? Or would it end in some impassible swamp? Darkness was closing in. Brandon gave me a look like, “Really? This is the route you picked? Really?!” Stuck on a barely visible trail, in the fading light of dusk, we carried our bikes up out of a small gully and onto the top of a knoll. And that is when we saw it- a lone boathouse tucked in the woods on the edge of a pristine pond.
As we cooked our dinner, the skies cleared overhead and brilliant red, pink and orange hues lit up the edge of the pond. Clear skies also meant cold skies as darkness finally descended around us. For dinner I put a little heated water, some of my cheese and summer sausage into an Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice and Beans, I downed a hot-chocolate and retreated into my hammock for the night. I was pleasantly surprised with the hammock sleeping experience. Once you get past the initial difficulty of getting into a sleeping bag while in a hammock, the sleeping is immensely comfortable. It naturally keeps your legs high, and lying on your back or your side is easy and comfortable. Typically when camping I have to continually roll around to keep my hips and back from getting sore. But because you’re off the ground in a hammock, there’s no pressure on your hips and back. My hammock setup included a Hennessy Hammock Radiant Double Bubble Pad that was essential on such a cool night. Although it says it works down to 40’F, I was able to sleep comfortably as the temperatures dipped into the high 30’s. I had a 30F bag, but also a Thermolite Reactor Liner that adds about five to ten degrees of comfort. I awoke only once in the early morning hours when an onerous odor announced that a skunk was lurking close nearby. Aside from the gentle rhythmic “whump” of the nearby turbines, the only other sound to break the night air were the occasional hoots of nearby owls.
We both awoke late and climbed out of our shelters when the sun had warmed the morning air. I heated powdered milk, to which I added granola, coconut and sugar and scarfed them down with some atrocious instant coffee. A light mist rose from the pond in the cool morning air as we talked about the day’s upcoming adventure. We decided to save Craftsbury for another day and start heading southwest to pick up the trail near Greensboro. After fixing a loose rear axle on Brandon’s bike- likely caused by the rogue rock the day before, we set out on our route. The trail we had stumbled along the night before improved almost immediately as we departed the campsite, and changed from mostly unrideable to somewhat rideable as we rolled across a steep hill and down to a larger pond. After passing by summer camps we finally rolled out onto the road on the far side. A long descent down a paved hill brought us by another memorial of my young adult years- the Bread and Puppet center. I described to Brandon how tens of thousands of people used to descend through the unassuming barnyard, into the pastures and onto a natural amphitheater to watch giant paper mache political puppet shows. After a short jaunt on Route 16 and past the Everyday Museum we started a climb on a leaf covered Class IV road up onto the ridge above. More country roads along a high ridge eventually led us past the doorstep of the Hill Farmstead brewery. Unfortunately, as it was a Sunday, it was closed. Undeterred, we descended down into Greensboro and bought some bread and freshly cooked chili to add to the summer sausage and cheese I had packed for the trip. We ate our lunch, basking in the sun on the green in the center of town. After lunch we rolled up to Caspian Lake where they had public restrooms- open even this late in the season. The wind was ripping across the lake, but the skies were crystal blue, and the sun was warm on our backs.
Just before the Walden-Cabot road, the snowmobile trail turned off of the railroad bed, and the character of the trail immediately changed. The next 100 yards were a jumbled mess of burdox and felled trees. A missing bridge revealed why the snowmobile corridor had departed- and so we finally rolled off the raised railroad bed and down to the road. With the taste of a full-on bushwhack still in our mouths, we ventured onto the Walden-Cabot road to where the rail corridor crossed, so that we could get a look at the start of the next section that led the next few miles to Joe’s Pond. High grasses, blowdowns and the lack of any discernable path suggested that this was going to be another slog for the remaining mileage to Joe’s. With many miles on our legs we opted to skip the schwack and ride the road until it crossed the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail at Joe’s Pond. This added some climbing, and couple miles onto our route, but it was an easy tradeoff as the road into Joe’s Pond provided beautiful views of the landscape of the high plateau surrounding us. Just before the intersection with Route 2, we noticed that the well-developed rail trail had begun in earnest, and so we skirted down, and onto the hard packed bikeway. From there it was essentially a twenty mile descent to St. Johnsbury. This was the perfect end to a long weekend of riding. We rolled through old hardwood stands, deep crevasses with mossy rock walls and along emerald green pastures with amazing views of the White Mountains. We quickly descended through Danville and toward St. Johnsbury. Justin’s wife, Kate, met us on the trail and we joined her and Justin for beers and snacks on their patio, recounting the weekend’s adventure.
The trip had been a smashing success. Some blind luck, some help from friends and the flexibility of bikepacking had all helped things come together seamlessly. From the bike, to a new backpack, to the food choices, to the last-minute route- even sleeping in a hammock for the first time- had all panned out. And now I’ve got the fever.
THE PLANNED ROUTE
MY GEAR LIST
Osprey Manta 28L Backpack 3L Reservoir Jet Boil Fuel Cannister Collapsible Bowl Set Leatherman Lighter Spork Wet Wipes Large Ziplock Bags Backup Battery Headlamp Feed Bag (Large Ziplock) with: Uncle Ben’s Ready Red Beans & Rice Soy Sauce Packets Taco Seasoning Summer Sausage Cabot Extra Sharp Cheddar Powdered Milk Granola 2x Hot Chocolate 2xInstant Coffee Sugar Packets Shredded Coconut
Defiant Zipperless Frame Pack (Large) Multi-tool Spare Tire Chain Lube Hand Pump Co2 Cannister Extra Stans Notubes Fluid Light/Battery Rear Flashing Light
Revelate Designs Sweetroll Handlebar Bag (Medium) Shell Jacket Waterproof Pants Hoodie Lafuma 30F Sleeping Bag Thermalite Reactor Bag Liner Wool Socks Chamois Long Sleeve Baselayer Revelate Designs Mountain Feedbags (x2) 1 x Water Bottle filled with Electrolyte Mix Snacks (Almonds, Gels, Waffles, Cliff Bars, Chocolate) Revelate Designs Egress Pocket Wallet Phone Backup Battery Watch Charger Cord Phone Charger Cord
Granite Gear Dry Bag (Strapped to Handlebar) Hennessy Hammock Radiant Double Bubble Pad
Water Bottle Cage – 1 Large Bottle
Although this map has the starting point in Victory, the more natural starting point would be Saint Johnsbury, which gives you a long descent on rail trail for the end of your last day.