Mud season in the uplands of North Idaho is less a span of the calendar and more a series of sodden, sloppy springtime adventures.
Some years the season seems not to come at all. The expected expanses of impassable dirt road simply fail to materialize.
But other years bring axle-deep swamps of brown goo, oceans of boot-sucking ooze, minefields of rig-busting potholes. This spring brought one of our most notable and notorious mud times.
Last winter, on the upper reaches of Gold Creek and Rapid Lightning Creek north of Sandpoint, the snows held off until almost Christmas and then grew to a thick blanket from the lower slopes to the peak. A February thaw brought unprecedented, saturating downpours. The runoff put creeks over their banks for the first time in decades.
Winter returned, and more snow fell.
Bitter arctic blasts of iron cold made the birch trees crack like pistol shots in the dark, ate up cords of firewood and kept folks near their stoves at night. The earlier rains froze deep and solid into the land. We knew from the evidence of springs past that when all the ice began to thaw it would expand and tear up our roads like wet newspapers. We stocked up on supplies and waited for the ticking time bomb of breakup to explode.
The first sign of the troubles to come appeared during the first week of March as rising temperatures began melting the snowpack and loosening the ice locked in the earth. The snow cover retreated like small glaciers and the frozen ground beneath swelled and cracked. Brown, bald patches appeared in once snowy meadows and on ice-crusted roads. Ditches and creeks began to flow. Returning geese and ducks formed nesting pairs and homed in the newly created wetlands.
Spring expanded into the upper watersheds. Thawing pockets of deep frost heaved up from the bowels of roads and split them with thousands of foreboding fissures. Quagmires blossomed and oozed. Ruts and sink holes quickly formed and deepened.
Winter visited again, briefly, with a half foot of slush to compound the mounting, muddy misery. Drivers became cautious, watchful for axle-busters lurking under the mire.
The thaw continued, and more rain fell.
The school bus routes on the upper roads were suspended. Mail deliveries became spotty and infrequent, then ceased. Even our newspaper carrier, who braved the worst of winter weather, called it quits for awhile.
Fewer and fewer folks ventured into the worsening chaos. People with jobs in Sandpoint began missing work. Those who could afford the rates rented motel rooms or stayed with friends in town. Even the most macho four-wheeled road warriors were challenged and chastised. The Mud Season from Hell was upon us.
Complaints to the road department from bogged-down taxpayers grew loud and frequent. A public meeting prompted the county commissioners to mount a spirited campaign to improve road conditions.
The county’s only grader sank into a particularly swampy morass and had to be rescued by some Gold Creek locals. Trucks dumped tons of rock and gravel into the worst of the mess. It disappeared into the brown syrup without a trace. Every piece of county equipment was pressed into battle. Budgets earmarked for summer repairs were spent on losing skirmishes in the war on mud. The road superintendent, green to his job and naive to the treacherous nature of our roads, finally surrendered.
The mud had won; the roads grew worse.
Neighbors who drove four-wheelers formed pools to transport kids to school. Others ferried those without mud-busting rigs to town for groceries or for doctor visits. At their own expense, a few intrepid volunteers tried to open some of the worst stretches with their backhoes and small dozers. We were grateful for the effort, but we knew it was only a holding action, a few Band-Aids on raw, gaping wounds.
The muddy ordeal stretched out over almost two months - the longest and worst breakup most people up our way had ever seen. The ruts grew deeper, the roads more misshapen and challenging. Rigs began to break down from the struggle. Orphaned hub caps, twisted mufflers, and busted tow chains littered the ditches.
But just as it started to look like there would be no end to it, the sun slowly brightened and warmed the lingering winter chill. The lower roads dried. The ruts were still deep, but the mud grew more solid. County crews drained and leveled the worst of the pits and shored up other trouble spots.
The upper roads improved from mostly impassable sloughs to mere teeth-rattling, wheel-wrenching obstacle courses. Small-muscled, two-wheel-drive rigs began making it all the way down to blacktop without major mishap. The school bus reappeared.
May breezes turned channels of muck into roads again. Daisies whitened the meadows. Deer came up from the valley to browse on budding alders. Bluebirds returned. Traffic and commerce and neighborly visits resumed. A reluctant and tardy spring bloomed and softened mountain life.
At last, turned into just another tale told when folks gather to gossip and boast of survival in the back county of North Idaho.