Today, April 8, has been a typical early-spring day in the Maine Woods: gray and showery, with a high temperature around 41 Fahrenheit. My cabin sits on land that slopes gently southward to the shore of First Roach Pond. As winter’s snow gradually melts, the expanse of sodden bare ground around my cabin expands a bit each day. But in areas that get less sunlight, the snow stubbornly persists. Yesterday, I thought I would try a short hike without snowshoes. I didn’t get far. Just past my pump, I abruptly “postholed.” My right leg sank down into snow that nearly reached my knee. I extracted my leg, then turned back to strap on the snowshoes after all.
Mud season, this in-between period between winter and full spring, is the time of year when I’m most isolated. First Roach is still ice-covered, but the ice is no longer safe for travel. Unplowed roads are covered in softening snow or are melted down to wet, muddy gravel, not good for snowshoeing or hiking, and impossible to drive on. In other words, no one can reasonably get in or out. In case of emergency, I could hike out slowly, or the local warden could probably manage to get in on an ATV, but it would be a slog for sure.
As the end of March approached, I began a guessing game: when would the ice on First Roach destabilize? I needed to pull two sled loads of food and supplies across, to be sure I would have enough for the four or so weeks when I would lack access to the outside world. If I went too soon, I risked running low before the roads became drivable. If I waited too long, the ice would be unsafe.
I studied predictions for temperatures and rainfall. I also consulted my backwoods mentor, Eric Stirling, who has lived at West Branch Pond Camps, about seven and a half miles from my cabin, for most of his life. We concluded that the ice would likely remain safe through the end of March. On the twenty-seventh, I saw that temperatures well above freezing, with accompanying rain, were predicted for the last night of March and first day of April.
So on the twenty-eighth, I pulled my trash and laundry two and a third miles across First Roach to the nearest public boat launch, then walked a mile and a half up a gravel road to retrieve my Subaru. The next two days were a whirlwind of shopping and errands in and around the town of Greenville, about 25 miles away. On the thirty-first, I hauled my first load across the ice to my cabin, pulled the empty sled back to the boat launch, then hauled my final load across the ice, arriving home about an hour before the rain began. I was ready to hunker down until the roads reopen. When that happens – likely in late April or early May – I will walk the four and a half miles out to my car and drive it back in.
Last year, my first full winter at my cabin, I had expected that mud season would be a trial to be endured. But, when the time came, I discovered that I enjoyed the sense of total isolation from the mainstream world. I feel like the heroine in a fairy tale, living in my own enchanted realm, shielded from the travails of Covid and political turmoil by Mother Nature.
If I had to choose a single favorite season, it would probably be winter. Winter was a major reason for my move to the Maine Woods. In the Boston area, where I spent most of my younger adult life, winters were never intense enough to suit me. I revel in the austere beauty of extreme cold, dazzling snowscapes, and long starry nights. I find peace in storms that send winds rushing through the trees and veil the woods in white. No matter how long winter lasts, I’m always a bit reluctant to let it go.
But over the next few weeks, spring will win me over as it slowly unfolds. I will watch and listen for the gifts it offers. A few days ago, I heard the honking of returning Canada geese. Soon I will hear the ethereal flute of the hermit thrush, the eldritch wail of the loon, the quacking of wood frogs. Coltsfoot will bloom in yellow sunbursts on my driveway, and red maples will blossom. (Update at dawn April 9: I just heard my first robin singing, about a half hour before sunrise!)
One sign of returning life is a particular cause for joy: the eagles are back! If you read my blog last year, you may recall that a pair of eagles raised a chick on the north shore of the peninsula where my cabin sits. Their nest was cradled in the upper branches of a tall pine. In September, after the eaglet had fledged, the nest – which had been there for two decades or more – collapsed.
Over the winter, when I was able to venture out onto the ice for a better view, I could see that all was not lost: a small core of the nest remained. Would the eagles rebuild, I wondered?
Then, on March 26, when a weekend visitor and I went for a stroll, we saw a pair of eagles about half a mile from the old nest. They appeared to be checking out another tall pine. Was it the pair from last year, considering a new site for construction?
Yesterday, I decided to visit the pine where the nest had collapsed. I was delighted to find a pair of eagles there. One was perched on a branch near what remained of the nest. He/she took off just after I spotted him/her, and was immediately joined in flight by the second eagle. Looking closely, it seemed to me the nest had grown a bit since the last time I saw it. Were the eagles already in the process of rebuilding, or was I indulging in wishful thinking? I lingered in the vicinity for about half an hour, hoping I would see the birds return with sticks in their beaks, but it didn’t happen. While waiting, I took a few photos using my camera’s zoom feature. When I got back to my cabin, I compared the clearest one with a good photo I got last year. Though the nest is certainly smaller than it was a year ago, all the supporting branches appear intact. I don’t think it would take excessive effort to return the nest to its former glory. I can only hope the eagles agree. I’ll head back soon for another look, and will report any progress (or lack thereof) in a future post.
Of course, despite the changing season, my basic chores continue: splitting firewood, pumping and hauling water. These are the non-negotiable tasks that set the rhythm of my backwoods life. As you may have seen on Facebook or YouTube, I recently recorded short videos demonstrating how I get these jobs done. If you haven’t yet watched them, but would like to do so, here they are now: