Spring struggles to gain a foothold

By Amy Chapman

It’s the talk of the town. Spend a few minutes in the post office, the grocery store, or the coffee shop, and before long you’ll hear someone bring up the unseasonably cold March temperatures and the way spring seems to be dragging its feet this year.

From tradesmen and highway crews to retailers and school administrators, nearly everyone is feeling some effect from a winter season that has been longer, colder, and snowier than most in recent years.

At Brooks Brothers Hardware, Ron Smith said sales of gardening items are off to a slow start and no one at the store is thinking about packing away the snow removal equipment just yet.

“With this weather, there’s no incentive to buy seeds,” Smith said. “People look out the window and see all that snow. We’re still selling roof rakes, and I sold two more snow scoops last week.”

“March has been about eight degrees below normal for the region overall,” said Mike Haggett, an amateur meteorologist in Poland Spring who predicts and analyzes weather on his Western Maine Weather Facebook page and website (westernmewx.com).

Haggett says snowfall totals have been just about average, but adds, “We didn’t get the February thaw and with March so brutal, folks are thinking this is a bad winter. I am sure the countless trips to the woodshed add to that thinking.”

SAD 44 Superintendent David Murphy said the district had used up the five snow days that were built into the school calendar, and had to use a sixth for last week’s snowstorm. That pushed the end of the school year back by one day, to Wednesday, June 18, Murphy said.

Frost and ice present challenges

Sustained cold weather over the past four months has driven the frost layer deep into the ground.

“The frost is six feet deep in the center of Philbrook Street,” said Don Katlin of the Bethel Water District. “The water coming into our building is at 33 degrees.”

“We have had some freeze-ups, but we’re so in tune to it that we’ve been able to prevent most problems before they happen,” Katlin said, adding that the majority of the town’s water pipes are buried deeper than six feet.

Many people with private wells and septic systems have faced challenges stemming from the deep frost, according to local contractors.

“We’ve thawed more sewer lines this year than we have in the last eight years combined,” said Dennis Doyon of Doyon Septic Services. “People who have had septic systems in place for 20 years or more and have never had a problem are having them freeze.”

A local plumber—who asked not to be identified because he’s “already too busy”—concurred. He said he had dealt with far more instances of frozen and burst pipes than usual this year.

“Mostly, it’s the second homes,” he said. “The ones that don’t have a good alarm system to let them know if the furnace goes out—they get up here and find out the heat’s been off and everything is frozen up.”

Ice, too, has been an ongoing problem for those who provide services and deliveries to homes and businesses, accumulating on driveways and walkways and refusing to melt. Doyon said others he had spoken with agreed that the conditions have been more treacherous this winter than any time in recent years.

“The amount of ice on driveways this year is unbelievable,” he said. “Every time you step out of your truck, you’ve got to know exactly where your feet are.”

At Bethel Bait and Tackle, owner Jeremy Fredette said a thicker than normal layer of ice on area ponds has turned out to be too much of a good thing for many would-be ice fishermen.

“There’s 30 inches or more of ice on some of the ponds,” he said. “Most ice augers will drill down 36 inches, but with all the snow on top of the ice, that means that first you’ve got to shovel down to the ice before you can drill.”

“Then if it’s below zero when you get out there in the morning, the holes freeze over before you can even get the bait in them,” he added. “We’ve had a lot fewer people ice fishing this year than you’d normally expect. You get a day when it’s ten degrees and the wind’s blowing, and it’s brutal. No one wants to be out fishing, and you can’t take kids out there in weather like that.”

Deep snow pack, flooding concerns

Although it may feel as if spring weather will never get here, Western Maine Weather’s Haggett says we will actually be better off if it doesn’t arrive all at once.

“Flooding has been a big worry of mine,” he said. After a very brief thaw in January, “Many rivers and streams that ice jammed that month froze back over, and that will be a big problem in a rain event,” Haggett said. “The snow/ice pack is roughly between eight and ten inches of water over the mountains right now.”

Plenty of snow has meant plenty of work to keep roofs cleared. In Greenwood, after the collapse of a section of roof at the neighboring Saunders Brothers mill, the town hired a contractor to remove snow from the public sand shed behind the Town Hall. Arnold Jordan, Head Trustee at the Locke Mills Union Church, enlisted his grandson to help him clean off the church’s Sunday school wing.

Timber harvesters, many of whom would normally be off the job for “mud season” by this time, are still cutting trees, but with the snow pack two to three feet deep in the woods, conventional loggers who still use chainsaws must first shovel out the trunks to avoid leaving high stumps.

Loggers aren’t the only ones heading to the woods with a shovel. “I’ve been going out on snowshoes to shovel out my sap lines,” said Brian Dunham of Velvet Hollow Sugarworks as he boiled down sap and entertained guests on Maine Maple Sunday.

There is also extra work for road crews. Most years, snow banks erode gradually throughout late February and March, receding enough to allow water to run off the roads as they melt. With this year’s continuing snowstorms and cold temperatures, there is more snow beside the roads than is usual for late March.

Greenwood Highway Foreman Alan Seames said his crew spent part of last week winging back the snow banks along all town roads so that melting snow doesn’t refreeze into black ice overnight on the road surface.

Seames said the winter had been rough on the roads, and on his department’s winter roads budget. “There are quite a few potholes, and plowing gravel roads this time of year, you have to be careful you don’t plow up gravel,” he said. “We’ve used a lot more salt and sand this year than the last five years.”

“It’s been a long winter,” he said. “We’re ready for spring anytime.”

The Farmers’ Almanac warns that we could still be in for one more zinger, predicting “an East Coast storm in mid-April that could bring a very late-season snow to high-terrain areas of New England.”

Arnold Jordan of Greenwood, left, and his grandson Donald Piawlock shovel snow from the roof of the Locke Mills Union Church’s Sunday school wing.

Arnold Jordan of Greenwood, left, and his grandson Donald Piawlock shovel snow from the roof of the Locke Mills Union Church’s Sunday school wing.

Don’t put that snow shovel away just yet.