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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES in ME » MAINE (all topics) » The Other Maine
Saint John Valley and the Saint John River in early winter
The Other Maine

Preparing for Winter in the Valley

By Alex Seise | December 27, 2010

Previous Article in this Series

Snow: love it or hate it, there’s simply no way to divert an impending winter storm.

Route 11 near Winterville Plantation, ME

It is a force of nature that sends many seniors and other heat-seeking individuals scrambling to the comfortable beaches and villages of sunny Florida. But others are attracted to the chill of a harsh cold snap, savoring the time spent skiing on fresh powder or watching snow fall from the cozy warmth of a fire-warmed living room. For them, the towns of northern Maine - a mere 2,377 miles up US Route 1 from Key West - are just right.

Though snowfall amounts vary from year to year, Aroostook County usually lives up to its location in the northernmost reaches of the contiguous states. In fact, by the end of the 2007-2008 season, snowfall reports topped 200 inches in many areas of the County.

As the 16 feet of snow melted, the Saint John River flooded its banks and sent cold water rushing through towns including Fort Kent, reminding residents that spring thaws don’t always relieve winter’s grasp.

Mainers’ approach to the winter season is much the same as their collective political philosophy: all things in moderation. Contrary to popular belief, the businesses in towns do not shut down for six months of the year, nor do roads instantly freeze over into snow-packed byways traversed solely by dog sleds and the occasional moose. Rather, each town takes a proactive approach to winter by fueling up plows and stockpiling gritty sand to spread on the roads.

A Studded Snow Tire

One November night after an inch of snow had fallen, David and I sat upstairs enjoying a movie. All of a sudden, the house began to quiver and a large grinding noise ripped through the cold air. Unsure what could possibly unleash such a noise, we ran to the front windows expecting the worst. We felt relieved as the largest snowplow we have ever seen scooped past the front yard carrying hundreds of pounds of snow with it. It spewed sand in its wake, rendering the roads clear with virtually no effort. Shortly after the plow disappeared into the distance, residents up and down the lane ventured out with snow shovels, rock salt and moxie in-hand to tackle driveways and sidewalks.

Even with the roads expertly plowed, many drivers here still don’t take a chance. The snow tire season in Maine is longer than in most areas of the country, lasting from October 2 through April 1. During these months, residents can legally operate a vehicle equipped with metal-studded snow tires that grip onto the pavement even with snow and ice present. While the tires cut back on accidents, they make steering slightly more difficult and also cause a rhythmic whirring noise to be heard as the metal studs repeatedly strike the pavement. The studs also add some shiny punk flair to otherwise normal rubber tires.

While shovels and salt can melt hazards on the roads of Aroostook County, nothing stands in the way of the dramatic evolution of the landscape itself. As autumn’s colors quickly fade, the hills transform into nearly-gray mounds of earth and branches.

Red Dogwood

Fortunately, all color is not lost: the stems of Red Dogwood shrubs dotting the hills burst from a dull sienna to a vibrant red upon losing their leaves giving the hills a ruddy appearance.

And by the time a deep blanket of snow settles in, most of the gray is replaced with sparkling ivory until the spring thaw.

As the winter solstice approaches, the days in northern Maine grow alarmingly short. The sun doesn’t rise until after 7AM and it disappears by 4PM. As the amount of daylight drops, so does the mercury; recorded temperatures of 30 to 40 below zero are not unheard of.

Seasonal affective disorder settles in for some residents who opt for light therapy during these dark times. Fortunately, much local depression is conquered by the tight-knit community that bonds over hearty meals and get-togethers.

Winter may be harsh in Aroostook County, but the hardy Franco-American spirit keeps most troubles at bay. And for those who simply cannot bear the thought of such a long winter, well, they can always head south on US Route 1 until they reach the Florida Keys.

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