A dog eyes a muddy section of trail at South Portland's Hinkley Park on Friday, March 25, 2022. Maine will get a sneak-peek of mud season when temperatures climb well above freezing this weekend. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Parts of Maine will get a jump on mud season this weekend when warm weather thaws the very ground that was frozen during last weekend’s record cold snap.

In Bangor, where it was 17 degrees below zero last Friday, it is forecast to be 46 degrees this Friday, according to the National Weather Service in Caribou. That’s a 63-degree temperature swing in seven days.

It also provides the perfect conditions to create mud.

Mud season is nothing new in Maine. Anyone who’s lived here for a full year is familiar with the shoulder season between winter and spring when a combination of rising temperatures, rain and melting snow turn solid ground into a near liquid. Things were so bad last year, residents were calling it “mudpocalypse.”

Thanks in large part to climate change and the extreme weather events that come along with it, mud season in Maine is coming sooner and lasting longer. It’s creating a sloppy mess for homeowners, homesteaders and farmers who this year are getting a taste of it in February, weeks ahead of the traditional muddy time of year in March or April.

“There is nothing really mysterious about it, and we all know about mud,” said Sue Erich, professor of plant and soil chemistry at University of Maine. “It’s basically soil particles and water.”

Mud forms where there is silt or clay in the soil, Erich said. In areas of sandy soil, water simply drains through without forming mud. It’s the interaction between water and soil on the molecular level that creates mud.

The optimum time to deal with mud is before it forms, according to Joe Ladd, owner of JL Landscape in Bangor.

“Proper planning is definitely the key so you are set up not to have mud,” Ladd said. “Build high and dry, [and] good drainage is key.”

Yards and spaces around buildings should be landscaped with the appropriate pitch and slope to drain water away from buildings, according to Ladd.

Installation of gutters on buildings and drainage tile under the ground near the foundation will also help draw water away from high traffic areas. If possible, Ladd suggests paving or at least covering areas with gravel.

“Water always wants to find the lowest spots,” Ladd said. “You should fill in any dips or valleys you see.”

To drain an area that’s collecting thawing water, you can also dig channels allowing it to flow toward ditches — or at least where it’s out of your way.

In the meantime, to avoid walking through the mud, residents can lay down planks or boards as temporary bridges to get from one place to another. Erecting a temporary walkway ahead of time can also decrease foot traffic and prevent stirring up moist ground and creating mud.

In barnyards, you can dump a heavy layer of wood chips over muddy areas that will help soak up the mud-causing moisture. But keep in mind that you may have to spread more chips once the original layers become saturated and mixed into the mud. When things dry up, you can either rake up loose wood chips and dispose of them or let them stay to mix in with the soil to help with moisture control.

If you are plowing or moving snow, pay attention to where you pile it, Ladd said. It will eventually melt and you don’t want it adding to any mud-creating watery areas.

mud season commentary

The climate trend in Maine over the last several decades points to longer mud seasons. This past December in Bangor, the average temperature was 30.9 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 5 degrees more than normal for the Queen City, according to the scientific group Climate Central that tracks weather trends and information in 182 locations across the country.

At the same time, more than 4 inches of rain fell, where it went directly into the ground and, instead of freezing, it made mud.

“If we look at the larger statewide scales, winters in Maine are warming on average, though there is still variability season to season and month to month,” Birkel said. “A very warm December fits into that overall pattern we have been observing.”

It’s not just the temperatures. The overall length of Maine’s snow season is declining, according to Birkel. Over the past several decades, the length of time the ground is covered by snow has decreased by two weeks in southern and coastal areas of the state.

Add in extreme freeze-thaw cycles — like what is occurring this week — and mud is all but inevitable.

If all else fails and you are stuck inside looking at a muddy yard, Ladd points out there is some comfort that eventually, Mother Nature will take care of the problem.

“When it gets sunny and windy, it will dry things up,” Ladd said.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.