Witnessing Spring Come in with Henry David Thoreau



“At the end of winter, there is a season in which we are daily expecting spring, and finally a day when it arrives.” — Henry David Thoreau


A detailed view of a three-leaved cinquefoil flower on the summit of Cadillac mountain. (Photo by Will Newton/Friends of Acadia)

If that sounds more like Mark Twain than Henry David Thoreau, then it’s time to become better acquainted with the gentleman from Massachusetts whose vivid descriptions about life on Walden Pond and excursions to the north woods of Maine render him spring’s appointed spokesperson. After all, the American naturalist and philosopher did admit, “One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in.”

Although tour books are wishy-washy about visiting Acadia National Park in the spring, there’s ebullience about the goings-on of the natural world between March and June when Thoreau is the guide.

Spring starts flirtatiously in Acadia. Thoreau described the dynamic this way: “The first pleasant days of spring come out like a squirrel and go in again.”

Of course, another member of the squirrel family—the groundhog—is infamous in North American folklore for being similarly capricious. But naturalists know this true hibernator is motivated by something other than shadows. As early as February, the male groundhog (also called a woodchuck) leaves his burrow to scout locations where females are hibernating. He whistles while he works, which has earned him the epithet “whistle pig.” After roaming two or three acres, he resumes sleep in his burrow. The reconnaissance pays off with breeding in March.

The sun climbs higher in the sky and days last longer. Early in spring, pussy willows bloom, the female great horned owl sits defiantly on her eggs though it may snow, and the male American woodcock starts his courtship.


“The faint silvery warblings heard over the partially bare and moist fields from the blue-bird, the song-sparrow, and the red-wing, as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell!” – Henry David Thoreau


Two juvenile barred owls rest on a tree branch in the woods at Sieur De Monts. (Photo: Emma Forthofer/Friends of Acadia)

This plump, short-legged gent puts on quite a show. Twice daily, in fact. At dawn and dusk, he emits what Cornell University ornithologists call a loud nasal “PEENT!” to alert nearby females. Then he launches into the air, soaring high and circling to the ground. As air passes through his outermost feathers, twittering sounds add to the spectacle of the sky dance. And because the woodcock is not monogamous (though some 90 percent of bird species are), bird watchers who see the courtship ritual once may be in for encore performances the same night.

Sounds signal spring. As walkers circumnavigate Jordan Pond, they are captivated by the noise of the ice cracking. “Every incident connected with the breaking up of the rivers and ponds and the settling of the weather is particularly interesting,” Thoreau said, describing nighttime ice movements as “loud as artillery.” Spring rains arrive, but frost driven as deep as four feet underground takes its time to thaw.

When the soil is so saturated that it cannot absorb any more rainwater, molten mud marks the days. Dirt-road residents loathe mud season, but Thoreau was “cheered by the music of a thousand tinkling rills and rivulets whose veins are filled with the blood of winter.” Still, he was realistic. “True, it is somewhat excrementitious in its character, and there is no end to the heaps of liver, lights and bowels, as if the globe were turned wrong side outward.” But, he concludes, “This is the frost coming out of the ground, this is spring. It precedes the green and flowery spring, as mythology precedes regular poetry.”

Bog walks are now a blessing, as spring hikers scan the woods for barred owls sitting on their eggs. Bluebirds and Eastern phoebes return, while fox sparrows pass through on their way to their more northern residences. Also, in March, wet areas like the Great Meadow witness male red-winged blackbirds, attired like scouts with bright red epaulettes, looking for nesting territories in advance of the females.

“The first sparrow of spring! The year beginning with younger hope than ever! The faint silvery warblings heard over the partially bare and moist fields from the blue-bird, the song-sparrow, and the red- wing, as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell!” Thoreau exclaimed.

Birds that have wintered in Acadia attract new attention as they don their courtship plumages. The male American goldfinch becomes bright yellow. The black guillemot changes from a pigeon- like grey and white to a more dramatic black with white wing patches—all the better to show off his bright red feet. Though male hairy and downy woodpeckers maintain the same appearance in spring, they drum on trees and telephone poles to announce their territories.


“This is the frost coming out of the ground, this is spring. It precedes the green and flowery spring, as mythology precedes regular poetry.” -Henry David Thoreau


Canada geese rest on a foggy Northeast Creek before their long journey south for the winter. (Photo by Will Greene/Friends of Acadia)

The air is still nippy and spring witnesses “the honking of geese flying low over the woods, like weary travelers getting in late from southern lakes, and indulging at last in unrestrained complaint and mutual consolation,” as Thoreau said. Two subspecies of Canada geese fly over northern New England annually, but there is also a relatively small resident population.

Another migration begins in late March and continues during April. When temperatures climb into the 40s and spring rains fill natural depressions in the land, amphibians return to these so-called vernal pools where they were born. Although temporary, vernal pools provide essential breeding grounds for frogs and salamanders.

Significant vernal pool habitat is protected by Maine law. The amphibians often move at night, risking traffic deaths as they venture across roads like Route 3 here on Mount Desert Island. When thousands are migrating in Maine, citizen scientists volunteer as crossing guards. They even have their own Facebook page for the “Big Night.” Many are particularly eager to see the spotted salamander, with its shiny black skin generously covered with bright yellow spots.

In April, the cabernet-colored sheath of the Eastern skunk cabbage pushes out of the mud in swamps and near streams. Because it generates its own heat, it can literally melt its way through frozen ground.

In nearby forests, mosses and lichens enjoy their finest hours, flourishing in the wet weather. Hikers bow down to catch the scent of the Canada mayflower along trails meandering among pine trees. Back out on dirt roads, they spy a bird in flight ahead of them with a white patch notable at the base of his tail; a flicker has been eating ants.

May marks an important moment: the opportunity to see returning warblers before the leaves hide them. Bird watchers spot palm warblers near bogs and yellow-rumped warblers high in spruce trees. The ruby-throated hummingbird is also back from Central America, taking in sustenance from newly flowered wild strawberries, cinquefoils, and white violets.


“Every incident connected with the breaking up of the rivers and ponds and the settling of the weather is particularly interesting… loud as artillery.” – Henry David Thoreau


A Common Yellowthroat rests on a branch off the Jesup Path. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti/Friends of Acadia)

Meows emanate from catbirds deep in shrubs, while American kestrels, Maine’s smallest falcons, drop to catch prey near open fields. The National Park Service has already closed hiking trails near the Precipice, Jordan Cliffs, and Valley Cove, where peregrine falcons are nesting. Visitors, however, stop by the viewing platform at Precipice trailhead, lingering to chat with park rangers about the status of the nesting.

As the calendar turns to June, bird watchers head to Sieur de Monts Spring hoping to glimpse an American redstart, black-and-white warbler, rose-breasted grosbeak, or perhaps even a pileated woodpecker. After long days in the field, they open their windows at night to hear the spring peeper symphony and inhale the fresh air. Thoreau’s words are like a prayer: “I am reminded of spring by the quality of the air… It is a natural resurrection, an experience of immortality.”

LYNN FANTOM is a former New York advertising executive who has embraced her second career as a freelance writer in Maine.

Ice Out and Renewal For Acadia’s Lakes

While most attention in the spring in Acadia is focused on melting snow, thawing roads, and the general warming of the landscape, remarkable changes are also underway within lakes and ponds.

Each spring and fall, lakes in colder climates “turn” as warm (less dense) and cold (denser) water layers switch positions. In summer, warmer water is at the surface and the coldest water is at the bottom. During the fall, the temperature in lakes gradually becomes uniform. Colder water from the surface sinks, shifting the comparatively warmer water upwards. When ice forms, however, the coldest water can now be found at the surface.

In spring, the cold water sinks and warmer water rises, turning the lake again. Both seasonal cycles redistribute nutrients through the water column and can affect water clarity and color.

Ice Out

The most obvious visible transformation is known as ice out, which is officially defined as the first time in spring that someone could navigate from one end of a body of water to the other unencumbered by ice.

In northern Maine, the date of ice out on major lakes often doesn’t happen until early May. Here on Mount Desert Island, the state has tracked ice-out statistics for only Long Pond. In 2020, ice out came on March 20. In the three preceding years it happened around April 13.

-Earl Brechlin

Buds bloom on a tree along the Jesup Path. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti/Friends of Acadia)

The Bold Journey of Female Snapping Turtles


Why did the turtle cross the road? Especially with that much traffic. And so far from the water. In early June, visitors to Acadia may see steadfast female snapping turtles, with their large heads and saw-toothed tails, crossing highways or alongside carriage roads. They are on their annual trek to find a good location in which to lay their eggs—some 15 to 50 of them.

Although fables do not laud the speed of the turtle, its determination is quite another matter. The female snapper seeks out dry, sandy areas some distance from the water so that her eggs won’t get wet or too cold. Temperature is key. In fact, the gender of the snapping turtle hatchlings will be determined by the temperature at a certain stage of development, as is the case for many reptiles.

Moving farther from the water may also decrease predation by the great blue heron. Foxes, coyotes, and skunks are likewise menacing. To help preserve the species, females can retain viable sperm in their bodies for several years to fertilize eggs even when they don’t mate. Visitors may spot a single, determined turtle slowly crossing a lawn or road en route to lay her eggs. Waiting and watching may yield another sighting.

As concerned as observers might be about traffic risks, they should be wary of approaching snapping turtles. “I recommend people move slowly and give the turtle plenty of space to cross the road on its own,” says Acadia National Park wildlife biologist Bik Wheeler.

In the water, snapping turtles that encounter humans usually just swim away. On land, however, they can be aggressive, even hissing at people they perceive as threats. They feel vulnerable, so do not disturb them. Such defensive, if not vicious, behavior has a sound basis in their anatomy. Unlike many other types of turtles, common snappers cannot contract completely inside their shells. With their long and flexible necks, they not only lunge but can reach backwards. Their powerful jaws inflict a painful and damaging bite.

And this they do with the speed of a hare.

LYNN FANTOM is a former New York advertising executive who has embraced her second career as a freelance writer in Maine.

Closures Protect Carriage Roads

Each spring the carriage roads in Acadia National Park are closed to all users as much of the surface becomes a layer of mud of varying depth. Footprints from walkers, hoof marks from horses, tire marks from bicycles, and even jogging strollers create potholes and deep ruts.

As spring rains hit, those potholes can become large puddles. Tire ruts channel water that can cause major damage.

“We know everyone gets excited for the opening of the carriage roads and we appreciate everyone’s patience with the brief spring closure,” said Steve Allison, Acadia’s roads supervisor. “The closure saves damage, time, and money and lessens the workload on the carriage road crew.”

Typically, the carriage roads close in mid-to-late March and reopen in mid-April, depending on weather conditions. Visit Friends of Acadia’s Facebook page or https://www.nps.gov/acad for test closure status and use advisories.

Spring Brings Car-Free Fun

Depending on when the snow melts off Acadia National Park’s Park Loop Road, walkers, runners, and bicyclists can enjoy as many as three weeks of car-free fun on the scenic motorway, including the Cadillac Summit Road.

Park officials traditionally close the paved roads, which are unplowed in winter, to motor vehicles until the middle of April. But, depending on weather and snowpack, surfaces can often be clear and passable by late March.

Along with not having to worry about traffic on the gated roads, bicyclists do not have to comply with the one-way traffic rules as required in season. The lack of motor vehicle traffic is especially
welcome on the narrow and winding Cadillac Summit Road.

In social media posts, one visitor shared her joy at being able to recreate free of motor vehicles. “Had a wonderful time riding all weekend even to the top of Cadillac on both days (had to “portage” a little here and there),” she said. “Be safe, have fun.”

Users are advised they may encounter rangers, maintenance crews, or heavy equipment. Some patches of snow and ice can linger and there may be debris present such as downed tree branches or rockfall.

Two short sections of the 27-mile Park Loop Road remain open to cars year-round: the two miles of Ocean Drive from the Schooner Head Road to Miller Garden Road and the section between the village of Seal Harbor and the Jordan Pond House.

-Earl Brechlin