What happened to winter this year?
It was a little shy of 20o F on Monday night, drill night for the Sebago Fire Department. There were a handful of us gathered at Station 1 in Mud City, putting on our turnout gear and waiting for the rest of the firefighters to arrive so that we could start the training session.
Fire Chief Alan came in the Station door with a smile on his face. His brother Jason was leaning up against Engine 2 and asked him, "What's up?"
Alan pulled a glass pint bottle from under his coat and handed it Jason. "First run off the evaporator of the season" he said. "I just filled this to show you."
Jason's face broke into a big grin. Alan passed the bottle to me - it was still warm as I admired the light amber color of the first maple syrup of this spring from Greene's Maple Farm.
Last year when Ted Greene was running maple syrup, there was snow to the eaves of his sugar house (see Maple Syrup Sunday - Sebago Style). This year the ground was nearly bare on the beginning of March.
As March 2002 began, I looked out over our fields and their very thin covering of snow and wondered what happened to our winter this year. Last year at this time the blueberry bushes were nearly covered in a thick mantle of snow. This year there is no more than a couple of feet of snow cover in places, but most of the field has only a foot of hard, crusty snow on the ground. There is even less snow in the woods, and it is also crusty and icy.
The paucity of good snow meant that I only went out snowshoeing a few times all winter instead of a couple times a week as is my usual custom. My cross-country skis sat on the rack by the back door, unused. I did make it up to Pleasant Mountain downhill skiing a few times, but day-job work and travel across the country have cut into the amount of time available for that.
I wasn't the only one that didn't get out into the winter woods much this year. My neighbor down the road, Don Swett, is a hard-core snowshoer and he only got out a couple of times. Many of the snowmobilers in the neighborhood went north to northern Maine or Canada for their sport rather than put up with icy, rocky trails locally.
According to the Farmer's Almanac, this winter was supposed to be as rugged as our winter of 2000-2001. We had nearly nine feet (see Snow? Get Used to It!) last winter, and I loved every foot of it! In December, the bulletin board down at the Sebago Town Park in East Sebago notified everyone that 36 inches of snow had fallen. By the time winter released its grip in mid-April, 106 inches of snow had fallen.
This winter, however, Sebago ended up with a little more than three feet of snow. To make things worse for us skiiers, the few good snow storms we had were often followed by sleet or freezing rain which coated the fluffy powder with a hard icy crust. Temperatures were warmer, and we had several "January thaws" where it got into the 40's and 50's. All-in-all, a pretty unsatisfactory winter for a snow-lover like myself.
A good idea that didn't work
It is probably pretty obvious that I look forward to snow storms like a little kid. It is fun to see it coming down, especially at night under the lights in the back yard. I enjoy cleaning out the driveways with the snowblower. And, I especially enjoy exploring the woods and fields on skis or snowshoes after a fresh coating of new snow.
Penny does not share my boyish enthusiasm for snow. She particularly doesn't like having to clean off her car after a storm, scraping the ice off the windshield and so forth. We're planning on adding a garage to the side of the barn for the cars, but that is a couple years off in the future. In the meantime, I came up with an alternative. I remembered seeing the portable tarp-covered automobile shelters in Quebec City and Montreal, and thought that was a pretty sensible idea. I didn't see why I couldn't rig up something like that for Penny's car out of what I had on hand at the Farmhouse.
When the fire company sold some of their tents this summer, I bought one of the large ones. The tents are an arrangement of galvanized pipes that assemble like a big tinker-toy, and are covered with a large silver tarp. I erected it in front of the barn, added a couple of other tarps to enclose the sides, and anchored it against heavy winds. Penny's car fit nicely inside, and it stayed ice and snow free perfectly. I thought the arrangement looked a lot like the portable Quebec City garages, but as it turned out there were some basic design flaws in my "garage". I really hadn't allowed for how heavy a load of wet and icy snow could be.
There was a "trial" snow storm that hit right after I'd put it up. There were about three inches of snow, and the tarp just shrugged it off with no problems. It also easily survived a night of heavy gusty winds. I was feeling pretty cocky about the whole thing. The shelter blocked my view of the fields and woods from where I sit at my computer, in the office. But, I figured that this was a small price to pay if it kept Penny's car free of ice and snow for the winter. I'd take it down in the spring and get my views back.
And then we got a storm with about six inches of snow that burst my bubble. When I checked on the shelter, it was doing fine. I figured to go out and sweep it off in the morning, and went to bed. During the early morning hours, however, the snow turned to sleet and coated everything with one to two inches of ice. Sometime during it all the shelter collapsed under the weight. When I woke up in the morning, it was completely crushed. The pipes were bent like pretzels, and Penny's car was shrouded with tarps, pipes, and ice encrusted snow.
Piece by piece I took it apart, shoveled out the car, and chalked it all up to experience and bad judgment. Penny's car wasn't damaged, only my ego. I guess the shelter will work well in the summer, but clearly it is not designed to carry the typical winter load we have around here.
So much for a great idea! I remember that physics and calculating load bearing for structures were never my strong suits in college. Just think if we had been having our normal Maine winter!
Deer in the Blueberry Bushes
Even though the light winter cut into my snow-fun, it was a good break for the blueberries and the deer. I've walked the blueberry patch several times this winter, worried that the lack of a protective snow blanket would result in a lot of winter kill to the new shoots exposed to cold temperatures and desiccating winds. The mild temperatures we have had softened the winter and I have seen very little of the shriveled and brittle twigs that mean winter kill. This was a good result of our light winter.
Last year the deep snows were tough on the white tail deer. It made travel difficult and many yarded up. The loss of deer over winter from starvation, exposure, and predation was high. This year, however, the thin snow pack has been easier on them. On the few rambles I made on snowshoes I didn't see any signs of extensive yarding, and their trails were everywhere. They even ventured out into the fields a few times. There has been a little deer activity in the fields, and a little bit of browsing on the blueberries - but not much.
At dusk one day Penny noticed movement down in the lower blueberries, where the Jersey variety bushes are. At first I thought it was a moose. I had seen a young bull moose wandering along the edge of the field about a month earlier.
"No, it is three deer" I said once I got out the binoculars. There was a large white-tailed deer, a middle sized one and a smaller one. The larger one was probably that big buck who has avoiding the hunters for the last couple of seasons. At this time of year, the bucks have dropped their antlers. The other two were probably does. Again, the two that I've seen down back several times.
All three of them moved slowly through the blueberry bushes, nibbling a bud here and there, but not heavily browsing. I was able to get several decent digital images even with the long range and the low light.
When I went down on snowshoes to check the next day, there was very little browsing damage to the bushes. However, they were "pruning" the new shoots. These would have been the ones bearing blueberries this summer, so the deer didn't help any. The losses were tolerable, however. The deer in the blueberries were few and they did not make much of an impact.
The Long Dry Season
I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised at the "whimpy" winter we have had this year. It is only a continuation of a very dry summer and fall last year. In 2001, Maine received only 29.19 inches of precipitation, far below the state's annual average of about 44 inches. This has been Maine's driest year since record-keeping began 108 years ago.
The dry trend began in August 2000, and Maine has had below average precipitation for 22 of the last 24 months. As a result, Maine is the third-driest state in the country right now. Experts say that the drought could extend for as long as five years, if past droughts are any guide.
Water systems all over the state have been affected, and we have several neighbors here in Sebago whose water wells ran dry last summer or winter. Some still are hauling water. Others have had new wells drilled in hopes of finding a reliable supply of water deeper in the ground. Our local well driller, Ron Irish, has been busy drilling new wells and has a long waiting list.
I talked with Ron last summer when we were trying to irrigate the blueberries with 3,000 gallons of water every week plus take care of the household needs. The house water well is about 150 feet deep, and there were a few times when I managed to run the well dry. Thankfully, it recharged itself quickly. I was able to set the timers on the five zones of drip irrigation for the blueberries to pretty much solve the problem, but I'm a little apprehensive about the coming summer irrigation season since we've had such a dry winter.
Ron said then that he had a lot of folks to take care of first, and if we could live with what we had we should give it a try. There is never any guarantee that drilling deeper will find more water. Lots of folks in the area have wells down 400 to 750 feet and produce less than a gallon a minute. He recommended doing a flow test to see what the well was producing. One day last summer I ran the well dry and gave it a few minutes to recharge itself. I then started filling five-gallon buckets and timed how long it took until the well ran dry again. Turned out that our well flowed about 2 1/2 gallons a minute, which is pretty respectable. Not as prolific as Tim and Carol Mayberry's 25+ gpm well at 75 feet deep, but good enough if we husband our water wisely.
Still a little apprehensive about having enough water this summer, I put a bid in on a surplus water tank from an old Sebago fire truck. The selectmen put several items up for bid last summer, and I was the only (and I might add) successful bidder on the 1,200 gallon tank. One day just before Christmas, Tim Cook happened to have his auto flatbed wrecker in town and I had him haul the tank up to the Farmhouse.
This spring I will mount it up on a crib of railroad ties or logs so that it is elevated 6 feet above the ground. New gutters will catch rain water off the barn roof to help fill the tank. We will also hook up a low volume "drip" pipe from the house well system to the tank. This storage will give a little insurance to reduce stress on the water well and also let us irrigate the blueberries through what is likely to be a long, dry summer.
Last summer, nearly 50% of the blueberry crop in Maine was lost due to dry weather. Many blueberry operations, particularly low-bush blueberry farms, do not irrigate. We were one of the lucky operators who were able to irrigate our bushes, but realize that the water storage tank is not a long-term solution. We're going to have to plan on drilling another well, just to provide water for the blueberries.
Drought is not in Maine's vocabulary. With the verdant green forests, the thousands of lakes and ponds, the major rivers that we have here in Maine, it is hard to comprehend that we may have another several dry years ahead of us. But, like most Mainers, we will do our best to cope and deal with it. In retrospect, not having a good ski winter seems like only a minor annoyance to what we have ahead of us this summer. We'll let you know how things turns out.
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Last updated March 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2002, Allen Crabtree