The blooming wildflowers and tuneful birds that herald spring’s arrival other places sure take their time getting to 45 degrees north. So we celebrate other signs of spring – or, more accurately, signs that winter won’t last forever. Here are some that may not be on the local chamber of commerce events calendar.
Frost heaves. Where frost penetration into the soil is typically about 70 inches, one of the first signs of spring is on rural roads and highways. As temperatures fluctuate, water in soil that’s been frozen can thaw and refreeze. Pressure from the ice pushes up against the pavement, heaving it into tummy-tickling waves. Anyone prone to motion sickness gets a front seat until the frost goes out. For the rest of us, this celebration is all about timing, or you can crack a molar when you land hard in the middle of a joyful “WHEE!!!”
Load limits. Heavier loads that are not a problem in deep winter can damage or shorten the life of pavement during a spring thaw. So seasonal weight restrictions (aka load limits) are imposed to protect roads. Celebrations related to load limits are more common among people who live on secondary roads. They let colorful banners of blankets and bedding flap on clotheslines in reasonable confidence that those items will smell like fresh spring air when they bring them inside. If you don’t live on a road with load limits, applicators may start spreading a winter’s worth of accumulated liquid manure on fields around you first – so get that bedding aired out while you can.
Ice dams. We can get ice jams in early winter as the Wolf River is freezing. But the ones that form in spring as the ice is breaking up tend to be more dramatic. Several times over the years we’ve seen ice dams threaten to take out the bridge on a nearby county highway. In a rural area, losing a bridge means a very long detour for those who use the route and delayed response times for fire and ambulance services and law enforcement. So when an ice dam breaks, we celebrate by hiking along the river to gawk at ice collars high up in the trees. But if you take your dog on that hike keep it leashed: There will be water flowing under ice along the banks for a good while after a channel opens in the middle, and anything swept under the ice is likely to be held there.
Flooding. Eager as we may be to see spring, there’s a lot to celebrate in a gradual warm-up. When the ground is frozen and meltwater from thawing snow can’t percolate down, it runs off. Open areas can melt fast. Add in runoff from snow piled up by snowplows all winter long and the snow in the woods and shady spots. It all has to go somewhere. In low-lying areas, standing water can freeze overnight to make driving almost as exciting as it was through the winter.
That may even be preferable to it staying liquid because a foot of moving water can sweep away a vehicle. A quick thaw can have volunteer fire departments placing cones and signs to warn motorists of problem areas when those people could be frantically digging trenches in the snow to divert meltwater away from their own basements and outbuildings. If you see cones or warning signs, heed them – and celebrate the volunteers who give their time to give you a heads up.
Burning. Those aren’t celebratory bonfires you see this time of year. They’re brush piles that rural homeowners are scrambling to get burned while there’s still snow on the ground. In Wisconsin, spring is the peak season for wildland fires so folks who didn’t get brush burned when it was colder are racing to get that chore done before burning bans go into effect. While those fires may seem festive, consider how much rabbit poop may have accumulated under that brush before you decide to toast marshmallows over the flames. Instead, find a patch of snow to cool a 6-pack and grab a couple of extra rakes to hand to the neighbors who stop to visit while you’re burning.
Seed starting. Nothing says hopeful quite like a northern gardener planting a flat of tomato seeds during a snowstorm. It’s an act of faith that sometime in late May or early June we’ll get our last frost and the soil will warm up enough for those tender crops to survive outside. Entire cultures have been built around rituals celebrating the return of the growing season. Here, you’ll see the ritual draping and undraping of old blankets over gardens. Muddy Crocs on the doorstep are our version of leaving shoes out with treats for St. Nicholas.
Sapping. The season for making maple syrup actually does show up on chamber of commerce events calendars. When it warms up enough for the sap to flow, we gather at our neighbors’ place to empty buckets and enjoy fresh air and exercise with people we seldom see during the deep winter months. When Mike snowplows the roads through the sugarbush, we know the fun will start soon. This year there’s a black bear denned up in there. I hope it’s tolerant of our noise and doesn’t try to join the party.
Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.