Maine has five seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, and mud. That’s not a punch line. Mud season is real, and we happen to be knee deep in it right now. During mud season, dirt roads swallow our cars and hiking trails suck the shoes off our feet. So unappealing is mud season that our finest inns resort to rock-bottom rates to lure unwitting tourists who don’t realize that their complimentary foot soak will be a walk on that sponge called a lawn.
Mud season, which runs roughly from late March to early May, is not a uniquely Maine phenomenon, but the state does happen to excel at it. “It’s a time when all the snow has melted, and you have a lot of water in the landscape,” says University of Maine professor Ivan Fernandez, a soil scientist. “The trees and plants haven’t started to grow, so they haven’t started to take up water from the soil and transpire it out of their leaves as vapor. In addition, the soils of Maine tend to be young and shallow. The glacier was here 12,000–14,000 years ago, so we haven’t had millions of years to develop really deep soils for the water to percolate down through. So in spring, there’s excess water everywhere, and when water can’t escape, we get mud.”
Some soils also are more prone to becoming muddy, and Maine is rich in them, most notably marine soils that extend along the coast and stretch inland 40 to 50 miles. Composed of heavy clay and silt (also known as rock flour, a product of glacial erosion), these soils are often wet no matter the time of year. “And in spring,” Fernandez says, “they make mud even faster.”
If you have any doubts about the legitimacy of mud season, check back with us in a few decades. Over the last 100 years, the length of the snow-free period bridging winter and spring has increased by about two weeks, says Fernandez, who is a researcher with the Climate Change Institute at UMaine. “Our projection is we’re going to get another two weeks by mid-21st century, so it looks like there will be more mud season in our future.”
An Expert Slings Some Mud
“I work with glacial marine clay. There’s a ridiculous amount of it in Maine. You find it around lakes and rivers because it holds in water — that’s why they’re there. Gardeners and contractors curse it. I worship it. I think it’s the most amazing stuff around because I get to go out and dig it myself — being outside and connecting to my material is important to me.” — Malley Weber, of Hallowell, one of a handful of Maine potters who harvest their own clay
A Few Soilient Facts
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service recognizes:
soil series, or types, in the U.S.
of them can be found in Maine, and
of those were first identified here and given names like Bangor, Hermon, and Saco (Northeastern University researchers discovered a powerful new antibiotic in one in 2015). There is, however, only
Maine State Soil — Chesuncook, a forest soil distinguished by its visually distinct layers, which go from a black topsoil to pinkish gray to reddish brown to dark yellowish brown. The final layer, some 20 to 65 inches below the surface, is light olive brown. Chesuncook was officially recognized by the legislature in 1999.
Down-and-Dirty Obstacle Courses
Keep the spirit of mud season in your heart all summer long.
Dynamic Dirt Challenge: This woodsy 4–5 mile course alternates between slip-and-slides and mud, hay bales and mud, culverts and mud, swamps and . . . you get the idea. Pineland Farms, New Gloucester.
Tough Mountain Challenge: Every year, the mud pits that bookend this alpine course get longer, deeper, and muckier. And in between? Expect a manmade snowstorm — and more mud. July 27. Sunday River, Newry.