May 21, 2018
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Preparing to run the marathon of Maine winter

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

If winter were an Olympic sport, no doubt it would be the marathon.

And like all serious endurance sports, there is no such thing as overtraining or starting too early.

Personally, I start getting my coming year’s cold-weather ducks in a row a day or two after the end of the previous year’s winter.

Winters can be long and hard in Maine, with extreme colds, gale-force winds and heavy snowfalls.

Getting through one unscathed is a noteworthy accomplishment, and it’s often how locals mark the passing years, as in, “Oh, you recently moved to Maine? Have you made it through a winter yet?”

Making it through a Northern winter is all about planning and preparation, which as the months tick down can become a full-time job.

“It’s a primitive instinct, I think,” said my friend and fellow musher Penny. “Stockpiling against hard times [and] the feeling that there’s so much left to do before snow flies and so little time left to do it in.”

Last weekend provided a pretty good wakeup call on the approaching seasonal deadline when Mother Nature dumped up to 3 feet of snow on parts of New England.

Up in the St. John Valley, we got only the barest dusting of the white stuff, but it was a sobering reminder nonetheless.

I had seen the forecast calling for snow so had made the appropriate appointments for getting the winter tires on the car. How I envy those whose sole winter preparedness routine revolves solely around studded tires.

With all manner of machinery here at Rusty Metal Farms, late fall becomes all about putting the summer equipment “to bed” and getting the winter gear primed and pumped.

Lawn mowers, the ATV and the tiller all need special fluids run through their systems to keep the moving parts happy until next spring.

Ditto the tractor, the snowblower and snowmobile, which need specialized startup procedures and potions as they come out of their summer hibernation.

It’s going to get cold soon, and when you heat with wood as I and so many of my friends do, the trees do not cut, twitch, split or stack themselves into neat piles of corded firewood.

For those of us living with a collection of furry and feathered critters, getting ready becomes a full-time job plus overtime.

The Rusty Metal sled dogs are by far the hardiest of my menagerie, but that does not mean they go into winter with no additional care.

Dozens of bales of fresh straw are now piled high in the shed for their winter bedding, something that gets changed once or twice a week throughout winter.

Close to 1,500 pounds of dried dog food is stacked on pallets high and dry in the garage, split between two training formulas based on protein and fat content.

In a few days I’ll sit down and tackle a mathematical story problem that would have stumped even my grade-eight math teacher, Sister Beatrice, back at St. Thomas More Catholic School as I work out the number and sizes of booties each sled dog will need for winter running.

Doghouses need to be inspected, repaired and moved to high ground in the dog yard — something my friend Kim and I did in her kennel earlier this week.

Much to their disgust, the Rusty Metal chickens have seen their outside world shrink in autumn’s wake.

Last week two friends helped me take down and roll up the electric fencing that had delineated the poultry yard. Finding themselves relegated to a greatly reduced area compliments of a roll of snow fence, several of the birds registered their disgust by taking flight — yes, some chickens can and do fly — and surrounding the house.

At one point, I looked out my kitchen window and saw five escapees staring back at me with their beady bird eyes. That’s when I confined the entire flock of 16 chickens to the coop.

In the coop the heat lamp is installed and at the ready, and the supply of fresh wood chips and additional straw for their bedding is close at hand.

But it’s the newest and smallest residents here who seem to be commanding the most winterizing attention.

In the wild, honeybees fend for themselves, but backyard beekeepers have a certain responsibility for the residents of their apiaries. It seems only fitting given humans routinely help themselves to the liquid fruit of the bees’ labor.

But the bees need a stockpile of honey for themselves and for their queen during the cold winter months.

Once the temperatures drop below 50 degrees, the bees stop flying and remain in the hive in a cluster with the queen warm and comfy at the center.

The worker bees keep the center — and the queen — at a balmy 80 degrees by shivering and releasing their own body heat, sustaining themselves with their honey stores.

The outer edge of the cluster stays around 48 degrees and the worker bees constantly move around from the inner to outer portion so no bee freezes.

On warm winter days, bees will take flight to get some fresh air and to answer the call of nature. Those who linger too long outside the hive or fly too far can get chilled and not make it back.

This past summer was not easy on the bees, and honey production around the state was down, leaving a minimum for their winter stores and much less for human harvest.

So to help them out I’ve been feeding my bees for the past month or so a mixture of highly concentrated sugar water.

On the sunward facing side of the hive, a sheet of black tarpaper is now helping the hive retain solar heat.

Since installing a miniature wood stove and knitting thousands of tiny sweaters would be a bit time-consuming, I instead will completely winterize the hive before the real snows begin to fall.

Using a large piece of 2-inch Styrofoam, my beekeeping buddy Carl and I will fashion an insulated box around the entire hive.

If I’m feeling the pressure to get things done, you can ratchet that up by a factor of 10 over at Penny’s, where she lives with not only three times as many sled dogs and chickens as I have, but also several goats at the end of a mile-long driveway she does not plow in the winter.

“Propane for the cook stove, water heater and backup propane heater; hay and grain for the goats; straw for the dogs; at least 2,000 pounds of kibble for the sled dogs; hundreds of pounds of bird seed and chicken food has to be hauled up the mountain by dog team or snow machine in winter,” Penny said. “So it’s important to lay in as much as possible before the snow flies. It’s a compulsive frenzy of activity, borderline panic [and] I know exactly how the squirrels feel.”

Still, Penny, Kim — who also lives at the end of a long, unplowed drive — and many of our friends really enjoy Maine winter — despite the work it brings — and can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“Hard as it is — and it can get pretty hard when the daylight hours shrink and the cold sets in and the snow gets deep enough to bog down a dog team or a snow machine — winter is still stunningly beautiful,” Penny said. “There is no silence like the silence of the snows, no book written by man can possibly reveal mysteries as profound as the tracks left in the snow by our wild neighbors. Winter still holds that magic for me. I hope I never lose that feeling.”

I couldn’t agree more. Winter in Maine is a marathon well worth the run.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She may be reached by email at

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