Words by Tim Patterson, Photos by Nathanael Asaro, Oliver Parini, David Schmidt
After months of cold and snow, the first taste of warm spring air is a heart-lifting tonic for Vermonters. The spring thaw generally arrives in earnest around the end of March, and although I’ve encountered snow flurries on Memorial Day here in the Northeast Kingdom, in most parts of Vermont the snow will have melted by the beginning of May. The weeks in between, roughly coinciding with the month of April, mark the time of year known as mud season.
Mud season has its own distinctive smell, a rich and murky odor that is somehow also fresh and crisply clean. There’s a distinctive sound to mud season as well, specifically the sound of running water, finally unfrozen and free to flow in trickling seeps and gamboling streams, sometimes collecting in puddles that you can tromp through.
Mud season gets a bad rap, but to me it’s one of the most joyous times of year, and I suspect I’m not the only Vermonter who feels that way. Sometimes, in the midst of mud season, there are beautiful sunny days when it feels as if the Green Mountains themselves are exhaling in relief after the long winter and are joined in celebration by every living thing.
Here are 14 of my favorite things to do during mud season.
Some of the loveliest wildflowers in Vermont bloom during mud season, before the canopy of the hardwood forest leafs out, because without the leaves overhead, sunlight can warm the forest floor. These perennial plants are known as spring ephemerals because their presence is so fleeting—early spring is quite literally their only moment in the sun.
The beginning of mud season is a good time to look for crocuses, including clusters of tiny white flowers known as snowdrops, which are often the very first wildflowers to bloom. Later in mud season, look on south-facing wooded slopes for spring wildflowers like trout lilies, bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpit, trilliums, spring beauty, and marsh marigolds.
As you’re wandering the forest looking for spring wildflowers, keep your eyes peeled for shed antlers from whitetail deer and, if you’re incredibly lucky, from moose. Whitetail bucks and bull moose shed their antlers in midwinter, and early mud season is a good time to find them.
Actually finding shed antlers is never a sure bet, but as the fabulous Ben Hewitt writes in his book Saved when recalling a conversation had while hunting morel mushrooms with a friend, “It’s so fun to walk around and look for things that may or may not be there.” Wise words, Ben.
The traditional opening day of trout season in Vermont falls on the second Saturday in April, right smack in the middle of mud season.
Going trout fishing on opening day isn’t about catching trout, at least not for me, although quite frankly the fact that I rarely catch anything on opening day says more about my fishing skills than my fishing philosophy. Even expert anglers will have a hard time catching trout on opening day, because most streams will still be running too high and cold for fish to be actively feeding. Even so, the annual opening day outing is a time-honored way to celebrate the beginning of spring, because if you can go trout fishing, by gosh, it’s proof enough that winter finally must be over.
Snow sticks around in the mountains long after crocuses bloom in the valleys, and mud season is a terrific time of year to ski and snowboard. Lift-ticket deals abound in April, and the end-of-season atmosphere on the slopes is pleasantly laid back.
Pond skimming is a mud season tradition that epitomizes the goofy, rambunctious vibe of spring skiing. Contestants, often decked out in ridiculous costumes, try to build up enough speed to successfully skim across the surface of a pond at the base of a ski run. Observers cheer, jeer, and salute the contestants from dry land, enjoying a festive, light-hearted atmosphere that’s super fun for skiers and non-skiers alike.
Mud season is also the season for making maple syrup. Sugar houses, or sugar shacks, are structures in which freshly collected maple sap is boiled down into maple syrup, and they are one of the best places to socialize during mud season.
Maple sap runs when nighttime temperatures are below freezing and daytime temperatures are above freezing; the larger the temperature differential, the better. These are the same conditions that thaw frozen ground and put the mud in mud season. Sugar houses, especially old-fashioned ones, are repositories of Vermont’s rural culture and exemplify the ways in which Vermonters are connected to the seasonal rhythms of the land. Because boiling sap requires a lot of heat, sugar houses are also warm, and naturally infused with sweetness.
Some maple-syrup makers hold open houses, and many others have an informal open-door policy, serving as gathering spots for neighbors, family, and friends who come together to stoke the fires, make small talk, and reminisce about maple seasons gone by. If you would like to visit a sugarhouse, find some local syrup for sale and call the number on the label. If it’s a small-time family-run sugaring operation and they’re boiling, chances are you’ll be invited to stop by for a visit, and no doubt you’ll leave with some fresh maple syrup, too.
I usually prefer biking on dirt roads and trails, but mud season is the perfect time of year for road biking. Temperatures are relatively mild, but still cool enough that you won’t overheat. There’s a special pleasure to riding fast through the thawing landscape and gulping down sweet breaths of cool spring air, relishing a newfound sense of freedom and movement that becomes possible at this moment in the year.
Rail trails are often a good mud season option for road biking. I’m a big fan of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, especially the section between Morrisville and Jeffersonville, and the Island Line Trail that links the Burlington Waterfront Bike Path with the Colchester Causeway. In the summertime a bike ferry links the causeway to the Champlain Islands, but that ferry doesn’t start running until the end of May.
OK, perhaps this is more of a chore, and less of a fun mud season activity, but I’ll be honest—I find great pleasure in a good, thorough spring cleaning. Open the windows wide, beat the rugs and door mats with a broom, scrub the mold from window jambs, empty the ashes from the woodstove into the garden, and go full-on Marie Kondo if you feel like it, stacking bags of give-away items in the mud room.
It feels downright therapeutic to freshen up the house in the fresh air of mud season.
Mud season marks the beginning of the mating season for wild turkeys. Early risers will begin to hear the startlingly loud gobbles of mature male turkeys, or toms, on warm days in March, and as snow melts in April, the mating season intensifies.
Turkey hunting is a popular activity in Vermont. The spring turkey hunting season spans the month of May, with a special season for youth hunters on the last weekend in April. Understandably, turkeys become wary during hunting season, so the weeks in April leading up to youth hunting weekend are a terrific time to observe toms strutting their stuff.
My wife teases me that this mud season activity is actually my favorite activity at all times of year, and she’s not wrong, but mud season is nonetheless an especially prime time for good old-fashioned porch-sitting at your local general store. The Craftsbury General Store has a wide and welcoming front porch with a few Adirondack-style chairs, and I love to celebrate the arrival of sunny, warm days by hanging out on the porch of the Genny with coffee, a breakfast sandwich, and a newspaper, chit-chatting with neighbors and visitors alike.
Midwinter is the time to peruse seed catalogs by candlelight, ideally in front of a woodstove, but mud season is when Vermont gardeners actually put seeds into soil—albeit not directly into the garden. Since the growing season in Vermont is barely long enough to grow vegetables from seed to maturity, it’s important to get a head start on gardening by germinating seeds indoors in small containers and then transplanting the most vigorous new plants into the garden.
I like to start seeds on window sills, especially those that are south facing, and by the middle of mud season I’ll have mini-gardens on every flat surface in the house that gets a bit of sun. Some types of seeds need lots of heat in order to germinate, and one helpful trick is to start seeds of heat-loving plants like peppers and tomatoes next to the woodstove to germinate, and then shift them to cooler spots, like windowsills, once they’ve successfully sprouted.
Mud season is the best time of year to stock up on winter clothes like long underwear, wool sweaters, and gloves because stores will be switching out their seasonal merchandise and marking down last year’s goods. You can also find great deals on ski and snowboard equipment, snowshoes, and any other winter gear that catches your fancy.
My favorite spot for bargains is the basement of Outdoor Gear Exchange on Church Street in Burlington, where there’s always a terrific selection of affordable clothing and gear for sale, including consignment items.
One of the great things about mud season in Vermont is that fifty degrees and sunny feels like shirt-sleeve weather. Vermonters toughen up during the cold winter, and temperatures that have us bundling and shivering in fall find us shedding layers in the early spring.
What better way to celebrate than to carve out a spot for a grill in a snowbank, set out some lawn chairs, grill whatever meat is left in the freezer, and crack open some local brews? Alternatively, if the grill is hopelessly buried in snow, you can visit one of Vermont’s fine breweries. I’m spoiled with Hill Farmstead Brewery close by so I almost never go anywhere else, but I hear that there are a few other halfway decent craft breweries in Vermont …
Mud season is a time of rebirth and rejuvenation, and on warm spring days it seems as if the earth itself is breathing a little bit deeper, shedding constrictive layers, and reawakening to its full potential. What better time to deepen your yoga practice, stretch your body, and focus your intention for the long summer days ahead?
Vermont is fortunate to have hundreds of dedicated yoga studios, and I’ve also experienced terrific pop-up yoga classes in locations like public libraries, church basements, and college classrooms. Since mud season weather can be capricious—April blizzards are a thing here—having an indoor activity to fall back on is a blessing when you can’t muster enthusiasm for searching for wildflowers in the sleet.
If there’s any farm animal cuter than a fresh-fleeced newborn lamb tottering on spindly legs, I haven’t encountered it yet, although kid goats are close competition!
Many Vermont sheep dairies welcome visitors, and mud season is a great time to spend time on a farm. Kids (of the human variety) especially enjoy the chance to observe and interact with lambs and other young farm animals. Some Vermont farms even have guest accommodations on the premises, including Fat Sheep Farm in Hartland and Grand View Farm in Washington.
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