EAST MONTPELIER, Vt. – Tour buses continue to pack into a maple sugar farm on the outskirts of Vermont’s capital during the first week of October, the peak of foliage season for travelers looking for the brilliant red and yellow mountainsides that define the season.
While the leaf-peepers are here, mountainside-covering color is not.
Surveying the landscape from behind his business, Morse Farm Sugarworks owner Burr Morse spots pockets of color in the trees. But in other areas, a stand of sugar maple trees that should be vivid have already shed their leaves.
“I think there’s still a chance we’re going to see more color, but total, total brilliance – I’m not sure about that,” said Morse, who for about 40 years has hosted tourists during foliage season.
“I’m discouraged for the people who put all the money into traveling here who don’t get to see it, but it gives them another chance to come back I guess,” he said.
It’s a lament that is being repeated across northern New England, an area that thrives on foliage tourists during late September and October. The muted colors have come in a year in which experts had predicted the cool, wet summer would produce spectacular October foliage . But the summer was followed by a hot, dry September that kept the leaves producing the chlorophyll that keeps them green.
For longtime foliage watchers in northern New England, peak foliage is something to be savored, like the intensity of a fine wine, with the color and the timing of the peak varying every season. But even a number of them say something is off this season.
“I am not going to try to kid Vermonters, that’s for sure,” said Michael Snyder, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, who monitors foliage with a professional eye during the season.
In a terse statement issued Wednesday by the department, Snyder said still-green foliage in parts of the state could yet show intense colors, but “there are locations… with browning and premature leaf drop.” Translation: Some leaves could fall to the ground without turning color.
The central New Hampshire town of Warner was having its annual fall foliage festival this weekend, complete with a family dance, a lobster and chicken barbecue and a parade.
Deb Moore, who owns The Foothills Restaurant in Warner, said she didn’t think the subdued color would stop tourists from coming.
“I think with the gorgeous weather you can’t really complain too much,” Moore said. “We know what’s around the corner.”
Still, in New Hampshire, state tourism officials have predicted all-time highs for visitors and spending this season.
In northern Maine, the season would usually peak by this time, but appears to be lagging there too, said Gale Ross, the state’s fall foliage spokeswoman. The rest of Maine usually sees a progression of color from north to south in the middle of October, with coastal Maine typically reaching peak conditions in middle to late October.
“It appears the progression of color is trailing about a week behind,” Ross said.
No one wants to call the foliage season a bust and each year is different. Snyder said that traveling in Vermont, he’d seen some areas go from dull to peak overnight and he remains hopeful the trees won’t disappoint.
“It’s going to happen this year, but it’s going to happen at different times and different places,” said Paul Schaberg, a plant physiologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture who has studied Vermont’s foliage for almost 30 years. “In my opinion, part of the fun of leaf-peeping is that adventure of looking for where the color is happening and when.”
The opinions of his visitors are mixed.
“The colors are gorgeous,” said Perry Mcpheeters, of Sheridan, Wyoming, who was touring the Northeast along with his wife, Shirley, and stopped at Morse Farm. He’d heard the colors weren’t as brilliant as some years, but he had nothing to compare it to.
“When we made plans to do this fall colors trip, we were so excited about seeing more color, so it’s been a little disappointing,” said Marian Houston, from the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, Illinois, who visited Morse Farm as part of the foliage tour along with Carolina Bono.
“The colors are a little dull,” Bono said. “Still, it is beautiful.”
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