Mud season on repeat for the Upper Valley’s back roads

Jeff Tracy, right, and his dad Rob, left, both of Barnard, collect sap from maple trees along the side of Royalton Turnpike in Barnard, Vt., to boil at their nearby sugarhouse on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. The road conditions have improved since earlier in the month when a neighbor, Arlana Ruch, said she had to hike through the woods to reach her home, and in December when the muffler of her Ford F150 was torn off in the mud while driving to her nearby home. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jeff Tracy, right, and his dad Rob, left, both of Barnard, collect sap from maple trees along the side of Royalton Turnpike in Barnard, Vt., to boil at their nearby sugarhouse on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. The road conditions have improved since earlier in the month when a neighbor, Arlana Ruch, said she had to hike through the woods to reach her home, and in December when the muffler of her Ford F150 was torn off in the mud while driving to her nearby home. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs – James M. Patterson

A sign announces the entrance to the Allenville Quarry in Chelsea, Vt., on Wednesday, March 20, 2024, where town dump trucks line up to buy crushed stone from McCullough Crushing.

A sign announces the entrance to the Allenville Quarry in Chelsea, Vt., on Wednesday, March 20, 2024, where town dump trucks line up to buy crushed stone from McCullough Crushing. "It starts going pretty fast when you get 15 trucks in here in a day just running back and forth," said loader operator Allen Herring. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Brian Lescord, of Austin Powder, works on his rig while drilling a grid of holes to blast stone out of the face of Allenville Quarry in Chelsea Vt., on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. McCullough Crushing turns the rough stone into graded road material that has been in high demand over the last eight months to fill flood damaged roads leaving the business with a dwindling supply this mud season.

Brian Lescord, of Austin Powder, works on his rig while drilling a grid of holes to blast stone out of the face of Allenville Quarry in Chelsea Vt., on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. McCullough Crushing turns the rough stone into graded road material that has been in high demand over the last eight months to fill flood damaged roads leaving the business with a dwindling supply this mud season. "The last few years I've been up here, this has been the case - they're decimated late winter, early spring," said Lescord. "They take it as fast as they can make it." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Loader operator Allen Herring reads a western novel on a slow, snowy Wednesday, March 20, 2024, at Allenville Quarry in Chelsea, Vt., where he works for McCullough Crushing sorting and loading crushed stone. Herring is waiting for more of the quarry face to be blasted so it can be crushed into the six grades of road building stone that are currently out of unavailable at the location.

Loader operator Allen Herring reads a western novel on a slow, snowy Wednesday, March 20, 2024, at Allenville Quarry in Chelsea, Vt., where he works for McCullough Crushing sorting and loading crushed stone. Herring is waiting for more of the quarry face to be blasted so it can be crushed into the six grades of road building stone that are currently out of unavailable at the location. "I need another 70,000 yards just to restock," he said. "I'll sell 1,200 to 1,500 yards a day." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Allen Herring, of McCullough Crushing, right, fills the truck of Brookfield highway worker Richard Hamblin with a load of crushed stone at the Allenville Quarry in Chelsea, Vt., on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Hamblin said several thaws through the winter created mud season conditions five or six times this year, but he thinks we're

Allen Herring, of McCullough Crushing, right, fills the truck of Brookfield highway worker Richard Hamblin with a load of crushed stone at the Allenville Quarry in Chelsea, Vt., on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Hamblin said several thaws through the winter created mud season conditions five or six times this year, but he thinks we're "past the worst of it." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Myra Hudson, of Royalton, drives a rutted stretch of Royalton Turnpike in Barnard, Vt., on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Myra Hudson, of Royalton, drives a rutted stretch of Royalton Turnpike in Barnard, Vt., on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

Chris Jones, of East Barnard, returns to his car after a quick stop at the Barnard General Store in Barnard, Vt., in a hurry to finish an apple pruning job on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. “It’s a car killer,” said Jones of the mud on Broad Brook Road where he lives. “These cars are our lifelines.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Chris Jones, of East Barnard, returns to his car after a quick stop at the Barnard General Store in Barnard, Vt., in a hurry to finish an apple pruning job on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. “It’s a car killer,” said Jones of the mud on Broad Brook Road where he lives. “These cars are our lifelines.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

A smiling face warns drivers of an overhanging log at the side of Broad Brook Road between Royalton and East Barnard, Vt., on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A smiling face warns drivers of an overhanging log at the side of Broad Brook Road between Royalton and East Barnard, Vt., on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

John Gifford, of East Bethel, sprays mud out of the wheels of his sister’s car at their parents’ home in Bethel, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Gifford lives on a dirt road and after making his commute to Montpelier with mud caked in his wheels causing the car to shake, he decided to clean them out and do the same for his sister. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

John Gifford, of East Bethel, sprays mud out of the wheels of his sister’s car at their parents’ home in Bethel, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Gifford lives on a dirt road and after making his commute to Montpelier with mud caked in his wheels causing the car to shake, he decided to clean them out and do the same for his sister. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-01-2024 7:32 PM

VERSHIRE — Dicey weather and a mud season like something out of the movie Groundhog Day are taking their toll on Upper Valley roads — and exhausting the area’s army of town highway crews.

“I’ll tell you what, I’m tired of snow,” said Mark Fogarty, of the Vershire road crew, a few days after a major late March storm dumped two feet of snow across the region. Another six inches are expected to pile up between Wednesday and Friday, according to forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And while the fluctuating temperatures of early spring in New England are good in a sugar bush, they’re not to the benefit of the highway crews. Slimy roads in the daytime, which Fogarty has to hustle to grade, turn slick with ice at night. Anticipating freezing temperatures in the waning hours of the day, Fogarty was loading a dump truck with road sand.

As frozen ground thaws from the surface down, the top of a dirt road can turn into a layer of muddy, soupy slop. This winter has been the warmest on record for several parts of Vermont and New Hampshire, according to NOAA.

With average temperatures from December through February in the high 20s to low 30s, the ground hasn’t frozen as deep as it normally does, and the tops of roads are largely thawing out at a faster clip.

“Mud season is just mud season, you can’t really define it,” said Mike Cempa, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service out of Portland, Maine. But he does know that, whatever the issue is now, it’s going to “keep being a problem” at least into this week.

Contending with the seesawing of this year’s weather has sometimes meant taking one step forward and two steps back, said Rodney Hoyt, road foreman for the Tunbridge highway department.

“One of our real issues in this mud business is you can have a really bad spot, but you can make an even more horrible mess of everything trying to get there to fix it,” Hoyt said. “You do what you’ve got to do but sometimes it costs more to fill in what you broke.”

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During the March 23 snowstorm, a rock got caught in between the rim and the caliper of one of Tunbridge’s highway trucks and tore out a brake line. Another rock, in another truck, broke off a couple of radiator hoses.

“Once in a while I have to say, ‘Enough’s enough, we’re going home and get some sleep,’” Hoyt said. “The quickest way to ruin equipment is to have tired people that can’t control it anymore.” So, he’s sure to keep “a pretty good eye on how the boys are holding up.”

The steps are the same for Hoyt — who’s been on the job for nearly three decades — but the rhythms of the work are new.

Warm winters are a special beast, he said. Even though Tunbridge stockpiles road material each fall with the coming mud season in mind, the one that the town was handed this year demanded more than what even foresight can account for.

“I tried to prepare for it best I possibly could,” Hoyt said. “But could I have told you last fall, that there were going to be three, four major mud seasons? I couldn’t have done that.”

Like many Orange County towns, Tunbridge and Vershire get their gravel from McCullough Crushing in Chelsea. The demand is stretching the company’s supply thin. “Normally we use this as down time to help replenish our quarries,” manager Ian McCullough said. “But this has been crazy.”

It’s happened “multiple times,” he said, that a town needs material and the gravel pit is just plain out of it. To replenish a pit can take months, as workers drill out raw material.

“We typically have one mud season for the most part,” McCullough said. “We deal with it, take a hit.”

But the last year or so has been different. The Upper Valley has seen multiple cold snaps and heat waves. Then there was last July’s historical flooding to deal with. “That flood just pushed everything back,” he said, and “since then it hasn’t stopped.”

In Royalton, road costs are coming out of the highway fund, “as they typically would,” said Town Administrator Victoria Paquin. While the road expenses of winter and spring are “probably a little higher than normal,” Paquin said that they don’t stand out next to the summer flood repair costs and December FEMA costs that still need to be taken care of. “This is a whole mess of expensive stuff that we weren’t expecting,” she said.

A dozen miles east from where Fogarty started hauling sand at one of Vershire’s town garages, Perry Kurz, a service technician for Irving Oil, waited at the deli counter of Baker’s Store in Post Mills for a steak and cheese sandwich. He had tales to tell of being out on the job.

Earlier last month, he turned around on Broad Brook Road, where he had no cell service and was faced with a steep driveway. “I just said, ‘I’m not going up that.’ ”

If a road looks too risky, the service techs send a picture of it to the company’s dispatch office. “But a picture never does it justice,” Kurz said. So his policy, he said, is usually, “put the pedal to the floor and hope for the best.”

Arlana Ruch has lived in Barnard on Maple Lane, a small road off the Royalton Turnpike, for 11 years. During flooding this past December, muddy back lanes snatched a muffler off her truck.

But the sacrifice wasn’t enough to appease the cantankerous road spirits.

Last month, conditions leading up to her house were so bad that she had to park at a friend’s and walk a half hour with her two kids through the woods just to reach her front door. Eventually, they’d had enough and shipped off to her mother-in-law’s house in Brownsville for two weeks.

“I was fine with the hiking, but my kids were starting to get really sick of it,” Ruch said.

Now, she’s back in her house, piecing together exactly what happened to Maple Lane. It’s proving difficult. “This is more mud than I’ve ever seen,” Ruch said. “This is exceptional.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.c om or 603-727-3242.