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Published: Saturday, 10/8/2005

Fall color preview

BY MIKE KELLY
BLADE TRAVEL WRITER

Look! Up in the sky! It's a

It's a what? A bird? A rain cloud? A TransMeridian Airlines jetliner? (Oops, no, we know it's not that.)

What, then?

Well, actually we don't know, and we don't much care, either. We just wanted to get you to look up, so you could get a good gander at all those pretty gold, red, and yellow leaves rustling in the breeze over your head.

Not that you're likely to miss them over the next few weeks, mind you, since they'll be everywhere. The hot, dry days of summer haven't yet faded from memory, but it's just about time to put all that aside and start looking for signs of fall's most wondrous calling card - the beautiful display of vibrant colors in the trees all around us.

It may not have swung into high gear quite yet, but some of the trees in Michigan and Ohio have already begun to don their traditional cloaks of red, yellow, purple, and orange to produce what is undoubtedly one of the greatest shows on Earth.

Maples are the quintessential chameleon of fall, showcasing a variety of reds, oranges, and yellows. Other popular trees for color include dogwood, sweetgum, oak, beech, and birch.

The sizzling summer of 2005 has led some to predict a less vivid palette of fall colors this year, but experts say that probably won't be the case - except possibly in some more populated areas, where the trees are subject to more stress.

"It's the longer, cool nights and shorter, sunny days of mid- and late September that really influence the vibrancy and duration of Ohio's annual 'forest fireworks,'" says Casey Munchel, fall color forester with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry.

"In urban areas, where trees are more prone to stress, hot summer temperatures have accelerated the seasonal change among oaks and ashes," she adds.

And buckeye trees, traditionally among the first to turn, are already donning their vivid yellow canopies, Munchel says.

In Michigan, however, volunteer spotters are indicating that the leaves are turning a little later than normal this fall, according to Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, a division of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

"But this may be the most brilliant [season] we've seen in years," Lorenz adds.

As most students of basic botany could tell you, the annual transformation of green leaves into the multi-colored hues of autumn is the result of a complex chemical process that goes something like this:

Shorter periods of sunlight in the fall trigger a chemical change in the leaves of hickory, birch, and beech trees that causes them to turn shades of yellow, brown, and orange. These colors, called carotenoids, were present in the leaves all along, but were hidden by green chlorophylls during the spring and summer.

Additional shades of red and purple, called anthocyanin pigments, develop in late summer in the sap cells of leaves that are rich in sugar, including maples, oaks, sweetgums, and dogwoods.

In woodlands where there are trees rich in both carotenoids and anthocyanins, the combination of fiery reds, golds, and bronzes can light up a vista, creating the typical autumn landscape that's familiar to most of us.

Because the Midwest has such a diverse collection of tree species - more than 100 at last count - the various colors are particularly striking hereabouts.

"Ohio is a state of ecological transition - northern species are on the southern edge of their range and southern species are on their northern edge here," the ODNR's Munchel says. "That gives the state a rich variety of trees and a vivid fall palette of purples, oranges, reds, and golds."

Travel Michigan's Lorenz says that fall foliage in the Midwest is every bit as impressive as whatever can be seen in the New England states.

"It's partially a result of marketing, and partially just a cultural tradition kind of thing that people think of the Northeast when they think of fall color," he says, "but anybody who has traveled the U.S. knows that they don't have the market on breathtaking fall foliage."

And with little indication that gas prices are headed lower anytime soon, Lorenz says it doesn't make much sense for people to travel hundreds of miles to see fall colors when they can see the same or better in their own backyard.

"They're not going to be disappointed, I guarantee," he says.

Each year, Lorenz takes his own color tour of Michigan with family members and friends, he says. This year's trip is scheduled for next week and will focus on woodlands around Muskegon, Cadillac, and Mount Pleasant.

There are plenty of other fall driving tours that promise good viewing of the changing colors. One that starts in Detroit meanders through Algonac and Lake Orion beforer winding up in Port Huron (195 miles). Another a little farther west includes Hillsdale, Homer and Sturgis (155 miles).

In Ohio, there are dozens of suggested driving tours. One runs from Bowling Green to Marblehead (54 miles); in central Ohio, another follows State Route 3 from Loudonville through Mount Vernon to Westerville (68 miles); and in the famous Hocking Hills area, a 37-mile route takes leef-peepers from Circleville through Hocking County to New Plymouth.

Much of the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan is already in full bloom, and the progression normally makes its way down through Michigan and Ohio over the next five or six weeks.

But because of the vagaries of temperatures and rainfall, foresters agree it's nearly impossible to predict when the trees of a given region will begin to turn colors, or hit their peak colors. Most states have telephone hotlines or Web sites where people can get the latest updates on color, as well as suggestions for fall driving tours and other information.

But much of the western Upper Peninsula already in full bloom.

Weekly updates on the best places to view Fall Color will be posted, beginning Thursday, September 29, at ohiodnr.com. Photos showing the progress of autumn across Ohio will also be posted on the web site, as well as tips on the best Fall Color vistas and the best places to hike and bike.

Ohioans and out-of-state visitors who enjoy viewing the state's Fall Color in a variety of locations can call the 1-800-BUCKEYE information line for the latest forecasts. Internet users can visit ohiodnr.com or discoverohio.com for a complete list of Fall Color activities and events around the state.



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