FOR snowshoe Mainers, this has been an indifferent winter. As we ``climb March Hill,'' I predict an indifferent maple-syrup season. This is why: Last fall we had our first heavy snow before the ground froze, and the season has been indifferent ever since. This shouldn't be. The depth of frost in the ground relates to the wintering of trees and shrubs. Some 40 years ago we had a fall when heavy snow covered unfrozen ground, and the next spring there was so little sugar in the maple sap that I quit after two days, washed the buckets and the evaporator, and snapped the lock on the sugarhouse door.
I remember that beautiful February morning when I began to tap because of the exceptional hatch of snowfleas. I'd tied on my showshoes, taken a pail of spiles, and wended into the maple woods with the customary ambitions of a proper Maine spring. Along the melting edges of the snowdrifts the snowfleas were in far more than customary proliferation. These tiny insects leave their eggs under the scraggly bark of the mature maples, and a February sun will hatch them. Then clouds of snowfleas, newly out, will move to the moisture of a melting snowbank, floating there in a springtime miracle. Not everybody is ready to believe snowfleas until he sees them. So I tapped the maples, and after I'd gathered sap I'd boil all day and get less than a cup of finished syrup.
This winter has had the similar oddity. December was cold, but with a considerable snow cover (ski people jubilated!) the ground below stayed soft. Then the January thaw came and stayed and ran over into February. I just betcha the sugar's going to be skimpy again this year!
Which, as an opinion, is as good as anybody's. I'm sure that back in the 1940s, somewhere, I told you about meeting Flip Coyne. I think we never knew her correct front name, but flip goes with coin, and we never inquired. She was a meteorologist in the United States Navy and came to Maine after considerable duty in the bleakest barrens of Alaska. She was competent and comely, and loved to tell about her introduction to the oddities of Maine weather. Incidentally, Maine weather finally won Flip the rank of lieutenant commander, and soon after the promotion we lost track of her. A grand person.
So Flip felt that after the rigors of outpost Alaska, duty in the placid State o' Maine would be a cinch, and after paying duty respects to the staff she settled in to handle the weather at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. And that first night in Maine turned out to be a cinch indeed. Nothing to it! Flip gathered the portents, ministrations, inclinations, pertinent evidence, looked at her altitude light, and reduced everything to a simple and serene forecast. Negligible SW air, pleasant tempera-ture, continuing high sky, four-day outlook congenial. She re-checked, put her prognostication on the line, and closed shop. The United States Navy relaxed.
That was the night the wind shifted NNE, climbed to 65 knots, the thermometer went down 13 clapboards, and we had 18 inches of snow by daybreak. (That, by the way, was the storm that was cleared up by the City of New York at a cost of $23 million. When Ralph Philbrick, up at Rangeley, read that figure in the newspaper, he said, ``Gracious sakes! Why'n't they just tread 'er down, same's I do?'')
Everybody consoled poor Flip, and explained that this was Maine weather - it was nonsense to suppose an angry Poseidon had rigged all this just for a joke on her! Alaska, they said, is all right - but ... And during the next few weeks, as Flip worked into her new station, she began to believe in Maine weather, and became something of a student of ancient goosebone notions and sayings, which she picked up from comical old Maine characters in the vicinity, including me. Flip would come to the table for lunch saying, ``See a sea glin, kitch a wet skin!''
Quite apart from her professional and scientific meteorological training, she became an expert on Maine weather - red-sky-in-the-morning stuff, and dog-eating-grass. Then came that magnificent evening when Flip deserted her training, relied on the Maine goosebone lore, and became even more learned.
It was like that first night. Salubrious. But the salubrity had brought on 18 inches of snow. Flip decided she wasn't about to be caught on the same petard twice. Not on your life! She discarded the portents and predicted 18 inches of snow. The next day was handsome. Flip now understood Maine weather. Don't believe it!