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In springtime, our thoughts turn to muck

As winters warm, N.E.'s mud season gets longer and stickier. Also more costly, if you make your living from the woods

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By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / April 19, 2009
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ROCHESTER, Vt. - Harland McKirryher knows mud. The rural postal carrier drives more than 65 miles a day in his Chevy 4x4, dodging slime holes, gunning it through pits of brown goop, and skillfully riding the ruts other tires have carved into the ooze like a knife.

"The mud just boils out of the ground every spring," McKirryher said recently as he pondered how best to reach a mud-splattered mailbox 50 yards away. "It's like soup until the frost gets out, and then it starts stiffening up and gets sticky. It gets interesting."

The problem with mud season is not just that it exists, but that there is more of it.

New England winters have warmed on average more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 40 years, allowing spring melt to begin earlier and the ground to freeze later in the fall. Add to that an increase in winter thaws, mini-mud seasons that are a preview for the main spring event. It all adds up to more muddy days per year.

The trend presents bigger problems than buying rubber boots. New England's logging industry depends on winter for work. Most roads into the North Woods are unpaved and need to be frozen or very dry to support the weight of logging trucks. Timber companies also need frozen ground to get to low-lying trees.

Warming temperatures make all that more difficult. According to one University of New Hampshire study, the central and northern region of the Granite State has about 10 fewer frozen-road days annually than in 1970.

While natural variability probably accounts for some of the warming, a growing number of scientists are confident that the release of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from power plants, factories, and cars are also to blame. Many of the observed changes here are consistent with computer models that project the response of the region's climate to global warming. Plus, scientists note, the region's winter temperatures began accelerating at the same time the rest of the world's did - suggesting it is part of a larger trend - and the warming is lasting longer than previous warm stretches in the last century.

Scientists also point to a related, and better documented, phenomena: Diminishing ice coverage on lakes and rivers. New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee, for example, is frozen for 14 fewer days now, on average, than it was about a century ago, according to the US Geological Survey. Another USGS study on river ice from 1936 to 2000 indicated a growing frequency of above-freezing days, which meant rivers were frozen for four fewer days in December and two fewer each in January and February over that time.

Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC, a New England consulting service, projects that if mud season slowly lengthens another 10 days over the century, it would cost the New Hampshire Forest Industry $1.9 billion.

But like it or not, mud season is part of New England's culture. In Vermont, it is referred to as the fifth season - the days sometime between March and Memorial Day when wooden planks are placed across soggy yards and supermarket parking lots are filled with cars of the same brown-smattered hue.

So far this year, Vermont's mud season has been relatively mild, and many roads are beginning to dry. But higher elevation roads and hiking trails, which tend to melt later, are turning soupy. On Wednesday, Vermont officials issued their annual warning to stay off high elevation state hiking trails until Memorial Day to prevent erosion. For the same reason, mountain bike groups also warn members not to ride on muddy trails.

"It's messy but it is the prelude to spring . . . the getting-out-season after the long winter," said Ann Marie Simone, pastor of North Turner Presbyterian Church in Maine. She held the church's annual "Mud Supper" last month; the menu had a distinctly brown theme, from mud pie to baked beans.

Vermont natives have developed an instinctive understanding of the science of mud: When the ground freezes in the winter, it also traps water. In the spring, the top layer begins to melt but cannot drain because of the frozen ground beneath. When cars go through, dirt roads turn into a soupy mire. The result is bogs of mud on dirt roads so deep people joke about cars disappearing in them.

Vermonters can boast that they live in the mud capital of New England in part because the state has more than 8,000 miles of unpaved roads. But soil conditions also figure in the equation: The Champlain Valley, for example, was once lakebed, and its soil produces a sticky mud when the spring comes.

"It's really plastic, just like dry modeling clay - it is still wet," said Don Ross, research professor of soil chemistry at the University of Vermont.

In Maine, mud season is arguably the most severe along the coast and about 20 to 30 miles inland, in large part because the soil is ancient marine sediment that retains water well.

Many in Northern New England have learned to live, and laugh, with the mud. The University of Maine holds an annual mud volleyball game. Mud season specials are also catching on at restaurants, car dealerships, and hotels: At the Golden Eagle Resort in Stowe, Vt., the $99-a-night "Filthy Mud" package gets you mud muffins, a map of good mud holes, and a car wash certificate when you check out.

The situation is more serious on hiking trails. Pete Antos-Ketcham, director of stewardship for the Green Mountain Club, says that though the ground might seem dry at the base of a trail, it is likely to be muddier as the elevation increases and temperatures dip. People walking on trails can churn and loosen the soil, which in turn accelerates erosion.

Mud's biggest casualty might be the logging industry, which all but shuts down in Northern New England when the season starts. In Maine, this year's season has been milder than years past, but it is probably still too muddy to get on roads until at least late May. And it is not just spring mud the industry worries about.

"In the late 1970s we were on frozen ice roads around December first and now we can't typically get on them before Christmas," said John McNulty, president of Seven Islands Land Co., which manages 1.2 million forest acres in Maine.

"We work around it, but winters are getting shorter."

For McKirryher, the postal carrier, it helps to make makes friends with the town workers who spend the spring filling in mud holes and smoothing out ruts with graders.

As he deftly drove his Chevy truck recently down miles of hilly dirt roads, some messy but others dried into bone-rattling ruts and bumps, McKirryher outlined his mud philosophy: It is all fun until you see 100 yards of open water with barely visible dirt banks on either side.

"It's like the Hail Mary pass: You back up and go for it. If you don't make it, well, then there is plan B," McKirryher says - and plan B probably involves a tow truck.

Beth Daley can be reached by email at bdaley@globe.com