When I was considering moving to Maine, beginning as early as 1993, I sought information about it. Over time, with the internet in its clumsy infancy, I relied upon a weekend subscription to the Portland Press Herald, Down East magazine, and statistics compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. I also spent a lot of time looking at maps of the amazingly unpopulated expanses of woods in Maine, and its fascinatingly convoluted shoreline. But all these sources fail to present an "on the ground" detail about what living here is really like. Especially when you've moved here from away and somewhere totally different (Arizona in my case). So let me now try to provide a service I wish had existed when I was considering the state. A series of articles about minutiae that may not be written about elsewhere. The series will eventually include romantic adorations of the state (for there is much to adore), and criticisms and laments of its shortcomings (which I consider lesser, but should be taken into account). I, in my twelfth year in Maine, unabashedly love this state, and still frequently look around and think, "Damn, this is just a great, great place", mostly in reaction to its natural beauty. But some of the negatives I consider minor might be deal-breakers for others. So let me describe one of those negatives, and suggest a survival tool that could make the difference between you becoming a lifelong year-round resident and bagging it and heading for easy living in Del Boca Vista.
You must buy a snowblower.
It snows a lot in Maine. Not every winter, but about half. In just eleven years, I've experienced it all. According to old-timers, I have apparently experienced the warmest winter, the shortest winter, the coldest winter, the snowiest winter, the rainiest winter, the longest winter, and just flat-out weirdest winter anyone can remember. And some of these are 60 to 70 year-old people. Well, at the beginning of our first winter, my wife and I moved into our 1968 ranch house, with a beautiful yard, and a 300-foot long driveway. Driving around Maine for the first six months, I was baffled as to why there were so many houses with 10, 20, 60, 80, or even 100 acres of land, but the house was located right on the edge of the frickin' road. Sometimes right near the highway. For more privacy, and quiet, and safety of children, wouldn't you want to be farther back? Well, then it snowed. And it snowed. And it snowed. And I had three hundred feet of driveway to clear to get to work.
At first, the kindly farmer down the road offered to plow our driveway for us, for $20 a plow. Sounded great. But it snowed a lot. And his interpretation of when it was time to plow was a little different than mine. I would've picked about six inches as the trigger point. He seemed to feel that one or two inches necessitated another $20 pass. It was an expensive winter and it was clear we needed a different solution.
I think I valiantly went after it with a shovel once. That was foolish and utterly defeating. Next, my mind lighted on purchasing the snowplow attachment for my Craftsman lawn tractor. Well, that was apparently designed for the occasional snowfall on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona or something. With the blade in the straight position, the tractor, even with wheel weights and chains, would only move the snow about five feet before that was the end of the road. The blade would ride up over the snow, the front wheels would drive into the compressed snow, the rear wheels would spin, and there I was stuck and unable to move forward or backward to free myself. With the blade angled, to hypothetically push the snow to left or right, the snow instead shoved the front of the tractor to the left or right, into the parallel unplowed area, and once again I was stuck. It was immediately clear that the blade was useless. I imagine the resistance of the snow may be one reason why snowplowers plow early and frequently (the need for extra Christmas shopping money being the other).
Plowing snow is big business in Maine. Every contractor, boat dealer, and basically any guy with a truck has a plow attachment. Some have drop-in sand/salt spreaders that fit in the bed of their truck. They plow driveways all winter, until building season arrives, after mud season (more on mud season in future posts). I'd guess about half of people go the plow route. Every plower has a list of regular customers, and during storms these guys plow all night and all day till the storm ends, and then for a good while after.
But the problems with plowing are the possible runaway cost and the ever decreasing size of your driveway. For when the plow truck begins the season, they plan ahead. They shove the snow way beyond the edges of the driveway, driving right onto your lawn and plowing the snow across it. Where they stop and back up, you're left with a 2-3 foot high wall of really densely packed snow. It can't be shoveled. It's too densely packed. With subsequent warm-ups and re-freezes it will get even harder. Also, with the next plow, it may get a little taller. 3-4 feet. Now, in Maine the snow usually stays. It doesn't thaw and disappear like in Arizona. Your early December snow may well stay till April, with each subsequent storm adding to it. And each time the plow truck comes, it can't push that wall of snow any farther. So its next plow run is a little shorter. And a little shorter. And so on.
Your driveway area slowly decreases with every storm. Eventually, you've got these 3 foot high walls of rock solid snow ringing your driveway. If you back into one turning around, it can actually collapse a modern plastic bumper. When things get really desperate, the only way out is to bring in a guy with a front end loader to actually scoop it up, dump it in a truck, and take it away. It's not that way every winter. But in winter 2010-2011, we had one of the heaviest snow years anyone one could remember, and certainly the heaviest in my eleven years. And things were pretty bad.
That is where a snowblower has the advantage. Instead of shoving snow around, the snowblower steadily and methodically eats it up and blows it up the chute and out in a giant arc, placing it wherever you like with surgical precision.
There's two kinds. Walk-behind ones about 24 inches wide or so - kind of like a slow moving push-mower - and tractor mounted ones that hook to your ride-on lawn mower or lawn tractor. Since I already had a lawn tractor, I decided to hunt for the blower attachment for it. New, the price was a little daunting, but by knowing the specific model number I needed, and with 6 months of patient scanning of Uncle Henry's classified ads every week, I had the luck of locating a used one that was the specific fit for my tractor.
Generally, it valiantly and effectively clears the driveway and sidewalk in about 30 minutes. It has the most difficulty with heavy, wet snow. But the most miserable experience is when the wind is blowing in random patterns and suddenly whips the stream of snow right back on me. I'm coated in powder, but my body heat soon melts it and leaves me wet. They make soft plastic and nylon cabs that fit over the tractor and prevent this from happening, but I've never purchased one. Seems to me it would greatly obscure vision, especially in evening, night, and early morning conditions. And after being showered with a blowback. I generally oppose this unpleasantry with a water resistant hooded coat and ski pants.
So there you have it. The straight dope on coping with snow in Maine. Think twice before buying that house with the long beautiful driveway.