Wilder & Rich Go Hedgehoggin'
I've wanted to hike Hedgehog Mountain for years, for one simple reason: it has an awesome name. There are actually two peaks named Hedgehog in the area, which can be confusing. One is a subpeak on Mt. Passaconaway and is sometimes called Wonalancet Hedgehog. Then there is the actual Hedgehog Mountain, with a height of 2,532 feet. This peak can be reached via the UNH Loop Trail, which is one of the first pullovers on the Kancamagus Highway, a few minutes from Conway.
My dog Wilder isn't fully grown yet, so he's been getting his feet wet in the Belknap mountains all summer. The big climbs can be tough on puppy joints. But I decided we're approaching high time to test his puppy mettle in the White Mountains. And Hedgehog Mountain was calling our names.
I decided that since Wilder was being a big dog today and climbing a big (kinda) mountain, he could be off-leash as much as possible. We'd never hiked with Wilder off-leash before, but we've been practicing on local nature trails. Except for when we chased a flock of wild turkeys for a half-mile, he's been very well-behaved and attentive. I knew it'd be stressful (for me) this first time, but better to do it on a quieter trail with less chances for distractions from other hikers – and other dogs!
We got to the Downes Brook trailhead around ten am. The sun was pounding through the forest and it was shaping up to be a perfect late summer day – highs in the 70s, crisp white clouds floating through the blue above. Not much foliage yet, but sporadic splashes of red poked out of the green shaping the wild Kanc.
Wilder was ready to go the moment we got out of the car, bouncing around the lot like a mountain goat. Fortunately, I pack tight before the hike and was ready to go immediately. This dog seems to have an instinct for hiking and led the way up the trailhead without my having to call him over. We walked about a first down before the UNH Loop Trail branched off and we turned into the sun. It splashed down the gravel hill like a waterfall. We ascended onto an old railroad path, perfectly clear and walled in by trees, an occasional root to step over.
Wilder glowed on the path ahead of me every time he paused to check in. I'd click my tongue, his cue to make eye contact with me before being allowed to continue. Click, click. “Hey, pup!” I'd say and break into a jog. We'd run a bit, he'd stop to sniff something – is there a dog nearby? – then he'd gallop past me, his paws thudding on the ground like little horse hooves. He'd round a bend ahead and I'd click again. He'd be there waiting for me, never off-trail, never ignoring me.
Man, the sun just poured in. There were ski trails around and a lot of the area felt open, yet the woods were thick and happy. We left the railroad path and began climbing. The roots got gnarlier, the birches and ferns gave way to darker shades. It wasn't long before we saw our first and only hikers of the day, a middle-aged couple and their dog. I sensed chaos, being the paranoid first-time off-leash dog-owner, but I approached the two dogs in a high-energy bout of playtime. With minimal prodding, I was able to lure Wilder away and we took off in a tizzy up the hill. Soon he was distracted by a brook, plunging his head in for a cool-off. “Good idea, pup!” I said, and pulled out the water bottle.
We finally began climbing legit. Wilder didn't slow a bit. We approached a steep intersection where one side went to Allen's Ledge, but the roots were so intense I didn't want Wilder's paws to get stuck, so we veered right to continue our ascent. We floated up that mountain.
The top of the mountain was rocky and ledgy, so I decided to leash the pup. I wanted him close, since he had never been in this sort of environment before. Last thing I needed was a hyper dog barreling over a sudden dropoff while I stood, mouth agape, ten yards too far away.
When I realized we had hiked right over the summit without stopping, and had begun descending again, I stopped at the next rocky outlook for a real rest. We had a killer view of Passaconaway, prominent above us, a dome of trees. I found a spot and poured Wilder a bowl of water and grabbed a handful of treats for him, which he demolished in a slobbery mouthful.
As we went on, I kept him on leash, navigating some exposed areas that even bipeds need to take care on. There were a lot of rocks and even a few steep drops that required crawling. One thing I've learned is that while a six-foot tall human might need to crouch and use hands to balance, a four-legger who is much closer to the ground has much more agility hopping those tricky areas. I slid down a steep spot and he was right next to me below, before I could look back to him. It was awesome. He will nosedive and use his front paws to balance, then land flawlessly on all fours like a champ. Goofy puppy face up at me – is that all, man?
When I unleashed him again, back under trees, we found some excellent switchbacks that begged us to break into a run. We came out to a wide open area with fun views all around the mountain. I saw the backside of Chocorua – the non-postcard view – and maybe the backside of the Osceolas, the pride of the Kanc. But best of all, we had a great look up to Hedgehog's peak. I guess it kinda does look like a hedgehog, huh...
My little hedgehog didn't want to pose for selfies, but he licked my face and insisted we keep going after a short water break, even whining to keep moving. I kept him on his leash as we tiptoed a narrow cliffside path around a bend that opened to some wide open rock, before finally descending back into the woods a final time. We ran a lot of the last stretch, Wilder determined to beat me to the car. I had to call him back numerous times, the dog was ambitious. The two miles back to the railroad path and our car was a breeze. Just skipping over the roots like tiny hurdles.
The entire hike felt like an all-day adventure, but it took us less than two hours! The trail was less than five miles. Wilder took no time at all to pass out in the back seat, open windows and sunshine breezes to make it a cool ride home. Now and then I'd open-palm a treat back there and I'd feel his muzzle sniff around and scoop it out. Yet everytime I peeked back on the wild one, his eyes were closed, his fur floating in the wind. Man, what a fun dog. What should we hike next, pup? Potash? Paugus? Chocorua? Or should we just finish those pesky Belknaps? I can't wait.