Monday, October 21, 2013

Forecasting fall color? An every-fall hassle

It never fails: Every year when late summer temperatures are in the 80s in Charlotte and the forests of Quebec are utterly green, editors here start to whisper, "What are the leaves like? Are they turning?"

These hard-working people don't get out much.

The first leaf story this year was published Sept. 7.

The Observer's Sunday Travel pages, which go online the Friday before at, offers weekly foliage updates. They kicked in the weekend of Sept. 29 this year, with leaves being "Prime/Peak Now" in parts of Ontario, Quebec, Minnesota, Maine and New Hampshire.

How did I know what leaves are like elsewhere? I called the tourism people at these and other provinces and states.

 And in the weeks that follow, I touch base weekly with every state as far south as Virginia -- and with 15 tourism organizations in Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina. Updates continue through Oct. 27.

Some states have remarkable prognostication tools: Click to their leaf page, select the dates and  you'll know  how the following week is shaping up, leaf-wise.

The biggest hassle is having to call tourism people at state and provincial agencies to ask, "How are the leaves going to be next week?"

"Well, it depends on where you are."

Yes, I know.

"And it varies from year to year."

Yes, I know.

"And it depends on elevatiion."

Yes, I know.

"And the temperature and other stuff."

Yes, I know.

"So it's kind of hard to say."

We're only looking for "Prime/Peak Now," "Prime/Peak Soon" or "Coming Later" status: Pick one. We're not doing an investigative piece about their mother's pancreas nor asking where they buy their lottery tickets. We're looking for an educated guess, for pity's sake.

The last resort is to say, "Will you just look out your window?"

Wednesday after Wednesday.

The tourism people in the Carolinas are easier to deal with, possibly because they don't have the large staff turnovers that often afflict state agencies. There's little song and dance about what I seek. Over the years of doing this, they've become leaf-line lean-ons.

"Oh, hi!" one told me the first time I called this year. "When October rolls around, I knew you'd be calling. How's the headache this Wednesday?"

These people, from North Wilkesboro to Brevard, Mars Hill to Marion to Oconee County, S.C., are glad I call: It helps reduce the number of calls they get from people wanting to know how the leaves are.

Observer colleague Steve Lytle runs a leaf update that publishes Fridays in the Observer; a main source for his what's-turning information is Appalachian State professor Howard Neufeld, an authority on leaf coloration. Neufeld, in fact, was featured in the Observer's Sci-Tech pages on Oct. 14.

(You can scroll up to the top and see a photo of Neufeld published with the Sci-Tech interview.)

That said, Neufeld is in the leaf-changing business: While he might honestly report that leaves are at "peak" right now atop Mount Whatever, leaves might still be still utterly green down down the slope at the county seat.

Elevation certainly complicates when "peak" is in season in Western North Carolina. On the other hand, the great variance in any county's elevation makes for additional leaf-peeping weekends there.

Try your hand at what I do Wednesdays in October.

Got a friend in Burnsville? Hendersonville? Forest City? Call and ask how the leaves are likely to look next week.

If he or she says, "Well, it depends on where you are..." just cut to the leaf chase and say, "Will you just look out the window?"