FALMOUTH — What a winter it hasn’t been.
Compared to last year’s constant snowfall and bitterly cold days, this winter has been the winter that never was. Snow accumulation was washed away by rain. Bitter cold was followed by spring-like warmth just days later.
But while these comparatively mild conditions might mean more people want to get outside sooner, they also mean some outdoor recreational activities have been affected.
The fluctuating weather has had impact on the town’s trail system, to the point where residents and visitors are being asked to stay off some trails to prevent damage to the land. Falmouth Land Trust posted messages on its Facebook account Feb. 20 and Feb. 25 asking people to stay off the trails until they either freeze or drain.
Analiese Larson, executive director of the FLT, said members typically post trail closings in the second or third week of April in a normal season, when the trails are more vulnerable due to conditions. But this season, she said spring-like conditions have prevailed.
“It does help when people stay off the trails, it helps preserve the trail system,” Larson said.
Larson said when the ground is generally still frozen, but the snow is melting, large puddles form on the trails. People walking or biking tend to skirt around puddles, which takes them off the trails. If enough people do that, the trail will eventually have to be re-established.
Larson said if FLT members see large puddles or mud spots forming, they make a blanket statement asking people to stay off all the trails. Skirting the puddles will eventually lead to a larger puddle.
“By and large people are respective,” she said.
Ted Asherman, who chairs the town’s Land Management and Acquisitions Committee, said the trails are in “a kind of limbo” due to the weather, as nights get cold enough to freeze the ground, but warm days keep melting the snow.
“We’re watching the forecast diligently,” Asherman said. “What we anticipate is there will probably be closure in the next week or so for brief period of time.”
LMAC is the committee in charge of making trail closure recommendations. Asherman said without snow on the ground, there’s less water in the soil, so some patches of ground are completely dry.
Asherman said he expects trail closures to last two or three weeks, but it’s hard to tell. An incoming rain storm could extend the time. Larson said opening the trails is weather dependent, but in a dry spring, the trails can be closed as few as 10 days.
Town Councilor Caleb Hemphill, former LMAC chairman and former FLT vice president, said it is an awkward time of year, as it “is just barely March but looks like the middle of April or even later.”
“The trails look open, but we’re sort of at this point where they’ll start melting and where we’ll run into official mud season,” Hemphill said.
Hemphill said it is important to give the trails a break while the ground is thawing, as it will require less maintenance to open the trails back up. He said there has been some flooding on the trails; they are vulnerable to foot traffic, and these conditions can create long-term damage.
“We ask people to stay off the trails and most people understand that,” Hemphill said.
Asherman said it’s important for people to use good judgement before going on the trails, whether they’re walking, riding a bike or with a pet.
“If you are leaving imprints in the trail, you shouldn’t be on the trail,” he said.
Hemphill said snowmobile enthusiasts are the group that got the short end of the stick this season. The lack of snow and thawing ground have many off their sleds this year.
Shawn McBreairty, a Cumberland resident and member of the Moonlite Sno-Skimmers Snowmobile Club, said it’s been a very tough winter for outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
McBreairty said the riding season typically lasts from mid-January until mid-March, though some years it can start early and/or run later. This year, not so much.
“I bought a brand new snowmobile this year, and I only have 300 miles on it,” McBreairty said. “Most winters at this point have close to 1,000, maybe 1,200.”
McBreairty cited the El Nino event this year as the reason temperatures in the Northeast are higher than usual. He said there are areas in northern Maine where snowmobilers can go, but that a 600-mile round trip often outweighs the desire to ride.
“Generally in years past you could ride 1 1/2 hours out of Portland and find good conditions, but this year you only find marginal conditions,” he said. “It’s not worth the risk.”