Living in the highlands of Maine has a way of altering some of life's common perceptions. Springtime is one of them. Generally when people speak of the signs of spring, they are referring to things like the emergence of flowers, blossoms on apple trees, and the budding of new leaves on all the hardwoods. But if we here in Maine were to wait for those signs, it would be at least halfway to summer most years before we could admit that spring is in the air. We have adapted, however, as humans will. We have a different set of signs here in Maine.
One of those signs is bright orange and reads vertically. It is found along the sides of the road and says "BUMP" which refers to the generally huge frost heave that lies ahead in the road. Spring is the season where the sun has enough warmth to melt the frost underneath the road surface, frost that can go as deep as four or five feet. When the frost doesn't melt evenly, the road surface develops depressions ranging in depth from a few inches to several feet. The "BUMP" signs mark the deeper ones.
Another of the signs of spring is the diminishing height of the snowbanks alongside the roads. The banks are generally at their maximum height in March, but the bright sun warms the sand and salt mixture in these banks causing them to melt much more quickly than the snow melts in the woods and fields. Since we look forward to the day when all the snow is gone, this early meltdown of the snowbanks is very encouraging to us.
Most Mainers call this time of year "mud season" rather than spring. The reason for that might be obvious. There can be a lot of mud around here when the snow melts. But it isn't only the melting snow that causes the mud. From March till May, and in some places even into June, frost in the ground formed during the long, cold winter slowly melts. Frost "heaves" the ground upward and when it melts, leaves the ground soft and very moist. The pressure of a car or truck or almost any machinery or even footprints on this soft ground creates instant mud. Woods operations generally cease for a month or more because of this mud to avoid causing deep ruts in the roads and skidder trails. This frost melt corresponds with the ice melt in the lakes, ponds, and rivers. As a general rule, that ice "goes out" of most of the lakes here in the highlands within a week or two either side of the first of May.
Yet another sign of spring around here is sapping season. That's maple sap which is used to produce maple syrup. My dad used to tap the maple trees on the farm each spring and spend a month or more boiling down the sap on an old propane gas stove in the barn. Normally, the snow depth in the woods at the beginning of sapping season is three or four feet, so he would drill the holes and set the taps and buckets only a foot or so above the level of the snow. We would create a trail from bucket to bucket using snowshoes.
In sapping season, when the temperature at night falls well below freezing but the sun brings daytime temperatures into the high 40s to low 60s, the sap runs. If the nights are above freezing or the days near or below freezing, or if there is much of a wind or precipitation, the sap slows or stops. Most modern sapping operations use plastic tubing from tree to tree to collect the sap, using gravity or even pumps to deliver it to holding tanks or even right to the "sugarhouse" where it is boiled down into syrup. But some people still do it the old way. It is one of the rites of spring here in Maine.
Other signs of spring include early morning walks on the crust, making you feel almost like Jesus walking on water, and corn snow. Repeated melting and freezing of old snow leads to a crust at night when the temperature is below freezing, but a granular snow when the crust melts under the heat of the sun. A very small percentage of Mainers celebrate this transition by exercising a ritual known as spring skiing. I'm no longer much of a skier, but if I were, I would almost religiously celebrate days when the sun creates corn snow.
Picture yourself having endured month after month of short, incredibly cold days and long nights, blizzards, cabin fever, you name it, then strapping on skis in late March or even into April and May and riding the lifts facing directly into the bright warm sun. At the top of the lift you effortlessly glide on this fast yet easily carved snow over to the top of the trail, hesitate to take in all of nature's beauty including the scent of the softwood trees taking their first breath of summer. Then you head down the trail enjoying what can only be described as the perfection of skiing. Spring skiing is when intermediate skiers like me foolishly challenge even the steepest and most difficult of trails, usually with ease. But beware of mashed potatoes! When there is fresh snow or if the sun melts the corn too much, pockets of soft snow form and they can be unpredictable, quite dangerous. Corn snow is very fast. Mashed potatoes can be extremely slow, almost like slamming on the brakes.
One other wonderful sign of spring is daylight after 6:00 in the evening. Today's sunrise was at 5:35 AM and tonight's sunset will be at 5:50 PM, more than 12 hours of sunshine! If that's not a sign of spring, I can't imagine what would be!
Oh, and there's one other sign - me out walking! I even have sunburn on my face to prove it!