Our particularly long winter has ended. Flocks of red robins, nips of buds on trees, and even a few mosquitos at night. I can go outside in the morning without needing a thick coat or heavy boots. These are all signs of change.
In northern New England, the brief season that follows winter is known not as spring, but as Mud Season. Coined by woodsmen, it is the time of year when woods roads thaw out and logging operations shut down due to the deep muds and impassable streams of newly thawed ground.
Loggers are in some ways an excellent indicator species for woods-based activity. As hikers and recreationalists, we should remember to observe our own mud season. This is a time of year to stay in low elevations, on resilient surfaces such as bike paths, rail trails, and dry surfaces.
The same reasons why loggers stay out of the woods (soft roads, deep mud, and high water) raise the practical and ethical reasons why we, as hikers, need to think about staying out of the woods (as advised also by the Green Mountain Club).
The first challenge is to remember the slower seasonal development that occurs at higher elevations. The majority of White Mountain Trails are currently covered in ice, hardpack snow, or dense mud. All of these conditions are not only unpleasant hiking, but also all transitional conditions that lend themselves to extraordinary erosion.
The mantras of an aware hiker (stay on the designated trail, walk through mud puddles, stick to resistant surfaces such as rocks and bridges) to minimize impact to soil and prevent erosion are critical during mud season. Higher elevation soils take longer to dry out, and their higher content of organic material slows the drying process. These newly-thawed and water-saturated vegetative layers are extraordinary fragile, and easy to tear with an errant step.
In short, during mud season, the erosion caused by stepping off the slick hard packed snow and walking around mud puddles is magnified by thin topsoil swollen to fragility with spring water.
While we are all eager to stretch our legs on our favorite summer trails, now that the temps are pleasantly into the 60s, we would all be doing our beloved backcountry areasa favor if we avoid hiking during these transitional conditions.
Here are a few Mud Season Hiking Guidelines
* Stay on the snow if it is still present and walk through the mud, not around it! If a trail is so wet or muddy that you need to walk on the vegetation beside it, turn back, and seek an alternative area to hike.
* Hike in the lower-elevation hardwood forest (unless it is muddy!) with southern exposure (south facing slopes dry out first in Spring).
* Avoid the spruce-fir (coniferous) forests at higher elevations
* Avoid north-facing slopes
* Encourage others to do the same!
Mud season is short. Very short. I can wait a bit longer. Can you?