Friday, September 21, 2012

The 'Tudes of Fall Foliage

Today we took a drive north, to the back side of Jay Peak in Montgomery Center, where we own some land, to survey our apple orchard, haul off the last load of wood before winter, and check out the progression of fall foliage. While we were up in Montgomery, we saw our neighbor Marty, proprietor of the Belfry Pub, and we spent about an hour standing on the edge of our property, catching up with each other.

Because Marty’s a restauranteur, and we’re innkeepers, our talk soon turned to the upcoming foliage season. “I think it’s going to be good,” said Marty, a Vermonter who makes one of the best cheeseburgers on either side of the 45th parallel. Marty also makes maple syrup in the spring, and he knows about the land in this part of the world. We spent a little more time talking other things, like why anyone would pollute Jameson Irish Whiskey with ginger ale, and a nice six-point buck he’s seen mooching around lately.

While our chat with Marty reenforced the anecdotal requirements for a good foliage season, what it really comes down to is science. And opportunity. And fate. And a whole bunch of other things that are, as my former employer FedEx used to say about some undeliverable packages, “Beyond Our Control.” For folks about to invade Vermont and the other New England states in search of that once-in-a-lifetime experience, it might be a good idea to have he right ‘tude when you come up here to help get the most from your visit.

The first ‘tude is altitude. Higher elevations will generally show colors earlier than lower elevations. This is because colder temperatures begin to affect trees sooner that are higher up than trees at lower elevations. Colder temps shut off photosynthesis sooner, allowing other pigments in the leaves to present. So if you’re visiting in late September, make an effort to get up to Mt. Mansfield, or Camel’s Hump, if you want to see great early season colors.

The second ‘tude is latitude. As the earth tilts away from the sun, days shorten, and the farther north you go, the faster the days become shorter, sparking the onset of leaf coloration. In general, color change works from north to south, so if there’s no color where you are, look for some altitude and latitude nearby and and you won’t be disappointed.

The final ‘tude is attitude. We’ve been innkeepers in northern Vermont for almost 13 years, and we’ve weathered just about every kind of foliage season, and we’ve managed every kind of leaf peeper. For many folks, the trip to Vermont to experience fall foliage is the trip of a lifetime. The key is to be flexible and understand that if the leaves aren’t blazing outside your bedroom window, it’s likely that just over in the next valley, or at the next peak, they’re in their full glory. They’re somewhere, and you’ll see them.

You’ll see lots more than leaves when you’re up here. You’ll meet great folks, like Marty up at the Belfry Pub in Montgomery Center, and all the other people who’ve grown up in or flocked to Vermont to experience every season, not just fall foliage. Just remember the ‘tudes and you’ll have a great time.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Yellow Bog

In October of 2009, while moose hunting in the Nulhegan River Basin of the Silvo O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, I discovered something extraordinary. While it wasn’t the 900-pound, massively-palmated bull moose I’d been tracking through the swamps that day, in nature’s context it was every bit as wondrous; it was the Yellow Bog.

Located along Peanut Dam Road, the Yellow Bog is an area populated almost exclusively with Tamarack trees. The wet, spongy soil of this pseudo-swamp lies buried beneath a thousand years of yellow tamarack needles, for the tamarack is one of only two deciduous conifers in North America--the other is the southern bald cypress. Each fall it sheds its needles. But before it does, the tamarack shifts from green to golden yellow and almost every hue in between.

When the yellow needles drop, they pile up on the boggy surface beneath the trees. Walking through this dense forest in an experience both luminescent and gloomy, soundless and unnerving. Light from above fails to penetrate the closed canopy; instead it’s channeled down into the roots of the trees, where it’s released into the ankle-deep padding of glowing needles. Having a light source come from below is as disorienting as it sounds, and the .30-06 slung over my shoulder offered little solace in such close, eerie quarters.

There is no sound in the Yellow Bog. The squishing of my boots was baffled before it could reach my ears. The sound of a snapping twig died in the air before it could be heard. At first, I thought this was an advantage. I began to see plenty of evidence that the moose were using this area for bedding and traveling. But then I realized that if nothing could hear me coming, I could hear nothing coming in turn. Coyotes could emerge at any moment; a horny young bull could stumble across my path and become enraged when he learns I’m unsuitable for mating; or another hunter could be lining up a shot, clueless to my presence.

I walked out of the Yellow Bog without getting my moose. My feet sprung noiselessly from one glowing tussock to another. When I bumped a tree, I was rewarded with a shower of golden needles and a breathless chill along my spine. Back on the road, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the dull colors of our world. My knees buckled under the force of gravity.

The best time of the year to see the magnificent tamaracks of the Yellow Bog is in late September, before the moose hunting season of mid-October. The Conte NWR in the Northeast Kingdom is an ideal place to see large concentrations of this tree, and it makes for a great day drive from Stowe. There are other areas closer to us, offering the same visual stimulation, but there’s nothing like the Yellow Bog.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Your Foliage 2012 Guide & Planner

For folks planning on heading north for some fine fall foliage viewing, the question is always about timing. While divining the moment of the brightest, most astonishing colors is impossible, there are some things to keep in mind when planning your trip, and some resources to help you adjust your expectations.

Yankee Magazine has a neat tool called the Fall Foliage Predictor. It’s a motion colored map that allows you to scroll over a calendar and see exactly when the peak colors will be in certain areas this fall. I don’t know what the mechanisms behind this map are, but given my experience in the north country, it seems about right. The accuracy of the map, in other words, may be less attributable to programmers and algorithms than people with experience, and Yankee has been around long enough to know when certain areas will experience their peak foliage colors.

According to Yankee, the peak colors for northern Vermont will be from about September 23 (my birthday, in case you have a gifting urge to fulfill) to about October 5, with the highest intensity occurring about the weekend of September 29-30. This seems a bit early to me. In the past, we’ve experienced the peak of foliage closer to October 4-5. But perhaps the folks at Yankee know something I don’t know. Perhaps they’ve calculated that long, warm, sunny, dry summer will advance the season a bit. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter.

More hard data can be found in Autumn 2012 edition of Northern Woodlands magazine. In an article called “Where’s the Peak?”, John Burk recaps the dull foliage season we experienced last year, and the reasons behind it: a long, cold, wet spring; an attack on sugar maples by anthracnose, a fungal disease; a high seed year, which stressed many maples by diverting energy toward seed development; something called septoria leafspot, which sounds ghastly, and which caused tens of thousands of acres of birch trees to defoliate; and the remnants of Hurricane Irene, which brought torrential rains and flooding to Vermont. Also affecting the season last year were some long term trends, such as warmer autumns and later first-frost dates. For the past half century, the first frost has occurred later and later, especially in the last 20 years. I wonder what could cause that?

Burk observes, however, that this year has been different. The long, warm summer should preclude a repeat performance of fungal diseases. Then again, warmer weather can cause earlier leaf drops. And the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center is calling for above-average temps for the remainder of this autumn.

So what does that mean for you, the traveler coming to Stowe in search of legendary color? Local knowledge is king. I’ll be out daily checking the area for the best colors, but as for timing and planning, I can tell you that at any time between the last weekend in September and the first weekend in October, there will ridges and valleys ablaze with astonishing fall foliage. All you need to do is show up.