Crews in Mont Vernon try to ease some of the pain of traveling on the town's dirt roads by filling potholes with crushed stone. (NANCY BEAN FOSTER)
New Hampshire drivers, road crews grapple with mud season
Not quite winter and not quite spring, mud season occurs when the snow and surface ice are melting, but the ice lurking deep underground is still comfortably cold.
According to Dick Perusse, New Boston's road agent, that ice keeps the water on the surface from draining properly and allows it to pool near the surface, turning roads to thick puddles of muck.
"When we plow dirt roads, the machines just pound that frost into the ground and it stays there until it melts," he said.
But Perusse said what really causes the worst mud is not the ice.
"In New Hampshire, a lot of our dirt roads started out as horse paths and were just widened a bit to accommodate automobiles later on," he said. "When mud season hit, the folks just used to lay pine boughs across the roads and drive over them. In really bad spots, they used logs and laid them horizontally across, creating corduroy roads." Though our forefathers made travel easier for themselves using these methods, they made roads a mess for us, said Perusse. All that organic material eventually rotted over time, creating a rich topsoil.
"Topsoil doesn't drain well," said Perusse. "It holds the water."
And of course, water plus dirt equals mud.
Further complicating things are the potholes that form when those muddy, rutted roads freeze, creating miles of bone-rattling bumps that take out undercarriages and pry loose hubcaps.
On Friday, crews from the Mont Vernon Department of Public Works were out with a loader and a dump truck full of gravel filling in the worst spots. Road Agent Mike Ypya said there wasn't much else they could do.
"We can't grade the roads yet because there's still ice under there and it will tear up our machines," he said.
And grading a road that can't drain properly can exacerbate the mud problem because the loose soil provides lots of places for water to hide, said Bruce Berry, director of the Amherst Department of Public Works. Berry said he learned that lesson the hard way years ago running a grader in the town of Mason.
"Getting out too early with a grader on a gravel road can create six inches of mud the full width and length of a road," he said.
Berry compared a road that's graded too soon to a kid making a mud pie in a bucket.
"It's the same thing, only worse," he said.
To help drivers navigate particularly muddy areas, Ypya said the crews will put down crushed stone to provide a firmer base for cars to drive over. But for the most part, mud season is like a cold - you just have to let it run its course.
Those who live on paved roads have their own share of headaches as potholes suddenly seem to come out of nowhere, flattening tires and snapping axles. As the frost heaves melt and settle back into place, cracks form in the asphalt and weaken certain spots in the road. All it takes is a car going a bit too fast to hit that compromised area, and a large chuck of the roadway can flip out of place. Each subsequent strike on and around the hole by another tire just makes it deeper and wider. Within a day or two, a small pothole can become a big monster.
It's still too cold to put down asphalt to fill the holes, said Cathy Willmott of the Goffstown Highway Department. Instead, crews fill the gaps with crushed stone, a temporary fix.
"They fill them as they pop up, but they just seem to pop up everywhere," said Willmott. "It's a never-ending job."
In the summer, Willmott said the crews will have a chance to patch the potholes with asphalt.
"The asphalt is the sticky stuff," she said. "That does the trick."
Slow it down
If Perusse could have just one wish as road agent during mud season, he'd ask folks to reduce speed to make his life, and their lives, easier.
"What people don't understand is the faster a car goes, the harder it hits the ground, and the more potholes you get," he said. "If there are potholes on a dirt road, I can guarantee you people are driving fast on that road."